The Journal Record

Deanna Atkinson’s employees are drilling holes and looking for petroleum, but she doesn’t want to sell oil. The president of Oklahoma Environmental Services and her staff are looking for leaking gasoline tanks. She is one of two contractors tasked with determining if closed fueling stations are seeping petroleum products into the ground.

The Oklahoma Corporation Commission received $150,000 from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to assess hundreds of shuttered gasoline stations across the state.

If contractors find pollution, however, it will take more money, time and work to remediate the contamination.

In the 1980s, the EPA strengthened regulations on petroleum storage tanks, requiring leak detection and prevention equipment. Many small business owners didn’t have the money to make the changes, and subsequently closed their businesses. Yet the rules didn’t require them to remove the noncompliant tanks.

The federal program is designed to help identify sites where gasoline or diesel flowed into soil or groundwater. The OCC determined that 1,745 tanks in the Sooner State needed upgrades, but only 1,319 made leak detection and prevention changes. Those out-of-service tanks can stay in the ground as long as monitoring equipment is maintained, said Robyn Strickland, agency Petroleum Storage Tank Division director.

However, 426 tanks were never upgraded or removed, she said. Letters to their operators went unanswered or were returned, so she prioritized sites that didn’t have a responsible party.

“We’re here to protect the environment,” Strickland said. “If we can’t contact the owners, at least we can identify those (sites) with contamination.”

The most recent round of funding covered the cost to assess 37 orphaned sites. A typical site has an average of three tanks, but Strickland didn’t have figures on how many tanks will be addressed with the $150,000 grant. The analysis and assessments must be completed by Sept. 30.

Atkinson won a contract to address 23 sites across the state. Her employees typically drill three 20-foot holes, taking soil and water samples. A laboratory will analyze the results to determine if gasoline or diesel leaked. One soil core appeared to have petroleum, but she hasn’t yet received confirmation.

“In an ideal world, you remove a tank when you quit using it,” Atkinson said. “That is when you do the site assessment to determine if there was a release of the product.”

Removing the pollution is another challenge. If tanks have been leaking for decades, there could be a growing plume of gasoline or diesel underground. The longer the sites are neglected, the harder and more expensive it is to get rid of the contamination, Atkinson said.

Contaminated orphan sites are eligible for federal money from the Leaking Underground Storage Tank Trust Fund. Strickland said she couldn’t estimate how long it would take to remove all the old tanks because remediation efforts depend on federal money.

“It is all contingent on funding and being able to locate someone who is responsible,” Strickland said. “That is the hardest part, is to find someone.”

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