Wednesday, September 18, 2013

It's Not Fracking - It's Old Tanks!

Dear Readers,

Back in the mid-1980s, I had a chance to leave the Security field and go back to sheetmetal construction.

About 8 years earlier, I worked as a sheetmetal worker and welder for a few months until Jimmy Carter's economy - which I refer to as the truly last Economic Depression in America  - took my job and many others.

Those years, if you wanted to survive, you simply weren't choosy about what you were doing for work. Yes, you took a job wherever you could find one.

And yes, that meant doing things that you might not have wanted to be doing to keep a roof over your head and pay your bills. For me, well since I had only been out of the Marine Corps about a year when the construction layoff came - I really considered going back in to the Corps.

Instead, I made a plan to join the Marine Corps Reserves to keep my rank and looked for a job in anything that I could find. Give myself a year, and than if I couldn't find some work - well I could always go back to my beloved Corps. Besides, I should have never gotten out in the first place - but that's a story for another time.

Since I had so much experience in security in the military, a friend asked me to work for him in the private security field.

I worked in security and put myself through a nearby community college. After getting my degree in Criminal Justice, I started putting in applications with police departments.

At the same time, I had the chance to get back into construction. Since I'd always enjoyed working with my hands. I jumped at the opportunity for many reasons - mostly it was to get away from working nights and weekends.

Working in construction was good and bad. I enjoyed building things, whereas unlike security, you can actually see the fruits of your labor. But frankly, I might have made more money an hour than I ever had at that point in my life - but I made a lot less money a year than I ever did in my entire life.

The layoffs, the jobsites not being ready, only working 7 months out of the year, it was a killer. Frankly, if it weren't for the fact that I did Security Consulting on the side - I don't know how I would have made it and kept from ending up on the street.

So what does any of this have to do with ground-water contamination?

Well, the construction company that I worked for built and remodeled gas stations throughout Northern California.

For a few years there, that's what I did. Along with my foreman, the company that we worked for sent us all over Northern California building and remodeling gas stations.

It was while I was working in that field that I got my first look at soil contamination from leaking underground fuel storage tanks and how bad it was.

Lately, there are people out there who are trying to say that fracking which takes place 5,000 to 8,000 feet beneath the earth is responsible for contamination of ground-water in different locations around the country.

Of course, the problem with this is that they can't explain why there is the same sort of soil contamination in areas where oil and gas drilling operations are no where near - or that the ones that may be close don't use fracking?

My belief, and this is based on what I saw years ago, is that leaking underground fuel storage tanks are to blame for a lot of what people are experiencing.

The reason that I'm writing about this is that I have received e-mail from readers who read my article Fracking - Let's Talk About It

It seems that they want to know more about what I said in that article about ground-water contamination from service stations (gas stations) tank leakage.

Following World War II and the boom in automobile manufacturing in the United States, the construction of thousands of gasoline stations across the country was also at a fever pitch.

At these new stations, bare steel tanks were installed underground to store gasoline. The average life expectancy of a steel tank was 30 to 50 years depending on the rate of corrosion of the steel.

In the early 1980s, corrosion of these steel tanks, along with faulty installation and operation, have resulted in all sorts of ground-water contamination by gasoline.

Back when I was working construction, way before anyone even heard about "fracking," I knew a man who lit his house water faucet on fire because of all of the gasoline in his well water.

Today, because nearly half of all Americans depend on ground-water for their drinking water, leaking gasoline tanks represent a significant public health hazard.

Leaking gasoline tanks can also present the risk of fire and explosion because vapors from leaking tanks can travel through sewer lines into buildings.

The majority of these underground storage tanks (USTs) contain petroleum products which include gasoline, diesel, heating oil, kerosene, and even jet fuel.

Many other substances classified as hazardous by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act ("Superfund") are stored in USTs.

Today, these leaking tanks, the USTs, are called LUSTs.

In September 1999, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was monitoring about 370,000 LUST sites in the United States.

About 21,000 site cleanups were planned for fiscal year 2001. Cleanups are funded by the EPA's LUST Trust Fund, which is currently funded at a level of about $70 million per year.

So how much gasoline does it take to contaminate ground-water - and subsequently our drinking water?

Well, prior to the EPA's 1988 UST regulations and their final implementation deadline in 1998, a slow leak from a 10,000 gallon gasoline storage tank at the neighborhood service station was virtually undetectable to the station operator - but is still hazardous to nearby groundwater supplies.

The hazards of gasoline are mainly attributable to the BTEX compounds. BTEX compounds are benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes.

The benzene content of typical gasoline is 0.76% by mass (gasoline composition).

A spill of 10 gallons of gasoline which is only 0.1% of the 10,000 gallon tank, a quantity that is undetectable by manual gauging and inventory control, contains about 230 grams of benzene.

The EPA's Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) for benzene is 5 parts per billion, or 5 micrograms per liter, in drinking water.

What this means is that the benzene in a 10 gallon gasoline leak can contaminate about 12 million gallons, of water.

So now, you really think fracking is what's doing it?
Benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes together are the most common hazardous components of gasoline leaks - and subsequently ground-water contamination.

Benzene is the most hazardous of these compounds. Long-term exposures to benzene in drinking water at levels above the MCL increase the risk of cancer.

Toluene and ethylbenzene are not considered carcinogenic or cancer-causing. Over the long term, toluene and ethylbenzene damage the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system.

Xylenes are a mixture of compounds. Xylenes also affect the liver, kidneys, and nervous system, but they are not considered nearly as hazardous as the first three - benzene, toluene, and ethylbenzene.

MTBE (Methyl tertiary butyl ether) is an additive used to increase the oxygen content of gasoline to improve air quality.

In the language of the 1990 Clean Air Act, oxygenated gasoline is referred to as "reformulated gasoline" or "oxyfuel."

At concentrations as low as 20 parts per billion, MTBE makes drinking water unfit for human consumption because of taste and odor.

MTBE is classified as a potential human carcinogen, but as yet there is no Maximum Contaminant Level for drinking water.

So, as many as 9,000 community water wells in 31 states may be affected by MTBE contamination.

The U.S. Geological Survey reports that about 20% of groundwater in areas where reformulated gasoline is sold is contaminated by MTBE.

Concerns about air quality will kill us by way of the MTBE in our water.

MTBE is highly soluble in groundwater. The high solubility of MTBE allows it to be readily dissolved into groundwater from leaked gasoline and transported over great distances.

In some cases, MTBE transport has exceeded the transport distances of BTEX compounds by 10 times.

Compared to MTBE, the BTEX compounds are less soluble and more readily sorbed to aquifer sediments.

groundwater contaminant plume

So yes, when I said, that back in the 1980s, I remember that inspector telling me that the underground fuel storage tanks leaked as they got older and were a genuine problem for us all - I believed him.

I remember him saying that he trailed one set of old tanks 40+ miles as he tested the water from one service station to another down the peninsula.

Since ground-water runs on plates beneath the surface, I have no doubt that he did in fact trail that ground-water contamination as far as he did.

The compounds in the ground-water that is cancer causing isn't the result of fracking thousands of feet below the ground-water tables.

In many if not most cases in the United States, it is the result of old tanks at gas stations leaking some amount of fuel that have compounds which even in the smallest amounts can cause us all great harm.

Story by Tom Correa


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