I’m not sure whether the average Alabama citizen realizes this, but every time we buy gasoline in this state, we are contributing to a fund that the petroleum companies use to clean-up gasoline spills at their retail service stations and convenience stores. A number of years ago, the Alabama Legislature approved an industry-sponsored bill that is now known as The Alabama Underground and Aboveground Storage Tank Trust Fund Act. This legislation established a trust fund to pay up to $1 Million per-incident for investigative, clean-up, and third-party liability costs resulting from leaks or spills from motor fuel storage tanks. In order to pay for this “fund,” the Department of Revenue has been collecting a one-cent per gallon fee for every gallon of gas sold in Alabama.
The Alabama Department of Environmental Management, through its Groundwater Branch and UST Corrective Action Section, handles all claims associated with the fund and oversees the response, assessment, monitoring and clean-up activities carried out at UST spill sites by environmental contractors hired by the UST owners. Additional oversight of the fund comes from a nine-member “Trust Fund Management Board” comprised of six people who operate gas stations or petroleum companies, two people who work for environmental contractors, plus the head of the American Petroleum Council. You won’t find any consumers or consumer advocates on that board, which is no real surprise.
Owners and operators of USTs are required to report leaks and spills to ADEM within 24 hours of the time they are discovered. The reported release sites that are required to undergo additional investigative and corrective actions (paid for by taxpayer dollars in the trust fund) are assigned a UST Release Incident Number by ADEM. How many gasoline “releases” are we talking about here? Well, consider this:
How many “active” UST leak sites exist in Alabama today? At the present time, there are approximately 1,600 active underground storage tank leak sites in Alabama — all of which are being cleaned-up with taxpayer dollars. Some of these sites involve a relatively small amount of gasoline being released into the environment. But many others — like the 15,600 gallon fuel spill that occurred earlier this year at an Alexander City convenience store — cause enormous damage to property and put the public’s health at serious risk. To clean-up those sites, ADEM is forced to authorize petroleum company contractors to undertake clean-ups that drain the $1 Million trust fund limit. And apart from paying an initial $5,000 deductible, the UST-owning company responsible for the spill makes no other contribution to the site clean-up effort.
In addition to paying for clean-up costs, the fund also pays the UST owner’s legal bills when cases are filed by third-party property owners harmed by the spill. And, to the extent that the site clean-up has not already exceeded the $1 Million cap, the fund even pays the civil judgments that these third-parties obtain in court against the UST owner/company. If that sounds to you like a pretty good deal for the companies that distribute and sell gasoline in Alabama, then I couldn’t agree with you more — particularly when nearly every single gasoline spill in this state is the result of a petroleum company failing to properly maintain, inspect, repair and/or replace its tanks, pipes and dispenser equipment.
To add insult to injury, however, the petroleum and convenience store industry is now trying to get new legislation passed that would modify the existing Trust Fund Act. Among other things, this proposed legislation would:
Now, to be sure, the citizens of this state should be plenty mad about the prospect of paying even one more penny for gasoline, particularly when gas prices are at an all-time high and the petroleum industry is reporting record profits. But as upsetting as it might be to think that the average person is paying to clean-up environmental problems that UST owners have created through their own negligence and inattention, that’s not the part that upsets me the most. What really troubles me about this legislation is the fact that it would give innocent adjacent homeowners and business owners the short-end of the stick. As now worded, this new Trust Fund bill wouldn’t pay one dime to third-parties harmed by a UST gasoline spill until all of the UST owner’s legal costs and their contractors’ past and future “projected” charges and expenses have been paid in full. Of course, the problem there is that when you are dealing with a spill site that is significant enough to cause off-site harm to adjacent property owners and homeowners, the past and future “projected” costs for just the convenience store property clean-up alone can eat up nearly all of the available money in the fund. Obviously, that leaves the innocent third-party claimants holding the bag.
In fact, some of the language in the proposed bill suggests that the payment of third-party claims can only be made if past and future projected clean-up costs fail to exceed the first $1 Million of trust fund coverage. If that is in fact the case, then this new industry-sponsored legislation truly is unconscionable. By definition, any site that has more than $1 Million in past and future projected clean-up costs will have certainly caused damage to the property (and, potentially, the health) of nearby residential and significant commercial landowners. The current situation is bad enough, but the new legislation would make things worse for taxpayers and for persons injured or damaged because of spills from USTs.
The House bill (H. 753) has passed the House and is now being considered by the Senate. Hopefully, our state senators will give some very serious thought to the consequences of this bill, not only for taxpayers who are being asked to pay for the negligent acts of petroleum companies, but also for innocent landowners who suffer damage due to leaking USTs each and every day. This is a most serious matter and one that will affect all Alabama citizens. This bill should be killed in the Senate and if that doesn’t happen, Governor Riley should veto it.
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