The Beat: Leaking Gas Tanks And Chemical Pollution Are Common Focus

July 15, 2006



Ever wonder what lies beneath your feet – what's down there in the ground on which we walk?

The Toledo Blade's Tom Henry has an editor, Jim Wilhelm, who asked that question and the result was an interesting look at what the government is doing – or not doing – to clean up gasoline spills from leaky underground tanks.

On Sunday, April 23, Henry's story started out with these words: "Twenty-two years after taking the most aggressive action in history to prevent underground storage tanks from further polluting America's drinking water, the federal government is sitting on $2.5 billion in gas-tax money earmarked for a backlog of cleanups.

"The leaks are of critical concern for two reasons:

"Petroleum products have benzene, toluene, and other substances known to cause cancer or other health problems, including brain, heart, and lung damage. Young children are especially vulnerable.

"About half the nation's drinking water supply comes from groundwater. Some cities, such as Dayton and Springfield in Ohio, draw most of their drinking water from groundwater. A pinhole leak that emits even a gallon of gasoline has the potential to contaminate up to 1 million gallons of groundwater."

He went on to tell his readers about the thousands of petroleum leaks that have not been cleaned up in his state and elsewhere. Nationwide, there is a backlog of nearly 120,000 leaking tanks

Henry's leaking gasoline tank story was just one of hundreds of environmental stories that were printed and broadcast in the past three months. Stories ran the gamut from land-loss flooding problems in Alaska to health problems caused by popcorn-flavoring to the usual pollution problems.

Henry said the underground storage tank story began "with my city editor, who's apparently fascinated by what lies beneath our feet. In the spring of 2002, he had me spend several weeks putting together our own series about the risk of underground pipeline explosions we face as a country as the nation's infrastructure deteriorates." That effort won several awards and was a finalist for the John Oakes Award.

City Editor Wilhelm "was just curious how many tanks are still out there, where the leaky ones are and so forth. Then – surprise! – during my research I stumbled across a nifty little thing on the SEJ website called TipSheet. The general theme of my story started to take shape after reconnecting with a June 8, 2005, TipSheet item. I wasn't so much intrigued by the controversy over the MTBE additive (mentioned prominently in the TipSheet item)."

What caught his attention was the 2005 Sierra Club report about the number of backlogged cleanups. "I also found recent GAO reports and, of course, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports and Congressional Research Service reports."

Henry adds a tip of his hat to a post on the SEJ listserv by Dave Poulson, about work that his graduate students at Michigan State University's Knight Center for Environmental Journalism had done on this general topic.

"The story evolved from a generic 'How many underground storage tanks are there? Where are they? How many leak?' type of story into a more refined theme about how the federal government has allowed bureaucracy to slow down the pace of cleanups for a major source of pollution identified more than 20 years ago." A regional EPA official told Henry that leaking tank cleanup was one of the few areas where money was available, but apparently off limits for spending.

"The same story can be done from any state simply by finding out who the underground storage tank guru is, both at your regional EPA office and in your state agency. For the regional EPA office, that's easy. At the state level, you'll likely find out that it's a toss-up between the state environmental regulator or the state fire marshal's office or a natural resource agency or some other agency, Henry said.

He also suggests finding "somebody to give you a primer on how the system works, how contractors do their jobs, how applications for cleanup plans are filed, etc., i.e., get walked through the bureaucracy and get to understand their world." For starters, go to That's a general clearinghouse of information called State, Local, and Tribal Underground Storage Tank Programs, with links to background information. Eventually, you'll want to end up at www. e p a . g o v / s w e r u s t 1 / s t a t e s / statcon1.htm, which is a directory of links to state officials and state data.

The data was current as of Sept. 30, 2005, and is apparently updated every six months. "Be forewarned the numbers are cumulative since 1988," Henry added. "Find out how much money your state gets from the national Leaking Underground Storage Tank Fund, which was created in 1986. Chances are it'll be in the vicinity of $1.4 million annually," he said.

There are at least a half dozen Government Accountability Office reports on the subject. Five can be found at m. One of the more recent ones came out in November, GAO report 06-45 (, with summary details.php?rptno=GAO-06-45)

EPA also put out a decent backgrounder in a March 2004 report that was released at a national underground storage tank conference. "It soft-pedaled the issue of backlogs and played up the progress angle." See 20annrpt.pdf for full report.

Chemical pollution continued to be a focus on the beat.

On April 25, Dennis Bueckert of Canadian Press had a story about a new study that "persuasively linked" the most commonly used weed killer on Canadian lawns and gardens – known only as 2,4-D –to cancer, neurological impairment and reproductive problems. The report in the journal Pediatrics and Child Health contradicts a recent re-assessment of 2,4-D by the federal Pest Management Regulatory Agency, which found it does not cause cancer. The issue has been controversial for years, Bueckert said.

Douglas Fischer of the Oakland Tribune reported on March 8 that researchers see ethnic differences in the health impacts of a suspected carcinogen used to make nonstick and stain- and waterresistant products. Whites are contaminated with three times the amount of perfluorochemicals or PFCs than Hispanics. Levels in blacks are half those in whites, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Levels for men in all three racial groups are slightly higher than women, according to the research, slated for publication in the April 1 edition of Environmental Science and Technology. CDC researchers cannot explain the differences, though genetic and lifestyle factors are primary culprits, Fischer reported.

Andrew Schneider of the Baltimore Sun wrote about how federal occupational health scientists and others investigated the illnesses endured by workers exposed to butter flavoring at popcorn plants in six states. The package of stories ran April 23.

Kevin McGran of the Toronto Star wrote March 6 that the number of Canadian freight-train accidents and toxic spills is climbing and that "only a tiny fraction of the accidents are ever investi- gated. There were 11,147 accidents between 1996 and the end of 2005 and almost all involved freight trains. Last year, there were 1,246 accidents – the most since 1996 – and 215 of them involved toxic and dangerous materials."

On May 10, San Diego Union-Tribune staff writer Mike Lee was one of several reporters to use the recent release of the annual Toxics Release Inventory. "Bucking state and national trends, San Diego County has increased its reported amount of toxic chemicals emitted by smokestacks, hauled to landfills and released into the environment in other ways. Between 2000 and 2004, the amount of federally tracked toxins discharged in California and the United States dropped by about onethird. In contrast, the countywide total swelled by 60 percent," Lee wrote about the newspaper's analysis.

Kristin Collins of the Raleigh News & Observer wrote on March 12 about field workers who gave birth to deformed babies were illegally exposed to pesticides more than 20 times each while they picked tomatoes in eastern North Carolina. All worked for Ag-Mart, a Florida-based tomato grower, and they were illegally exposed to a host of chemicals as often as three times a week, according to Department of Agriculture documents. Three of the 15 chemicals are linked to birth defects in lab animals. Ag-Mart said none of its workers were illegally exposed to pesticides and that the Agriculture Department misinterpreted its records.

On March 18, Collins wrote that violators of North Carolina's pesticide laws who have sprayed homes, cars and waterways with toxic chemicals have endangered human health, killed animals and fish, and left containers coated with poisonous residue beside busy roads. Her review of state pesticide enforcement records showed violators rarely paid more than a few hundred dollars for their illegal acts.

On March 12, Nell Boyce on the "Morning Edition" of National Public Radio reported on a new website that questions some products using nanotechnology, including some cosmetics. It is the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The center has just put up a new website with a searchable list of 212 commercially available nano-products. Thirty-one of those products are cosmetics. (

Marc Reisch of Chemical and Engineering News wrote that terms such as "organic" and "natural" often get top billing on cosmetic labels, but some synthetic polymers are often the real stars behind skin creams, hair sprays, sunscreens, and a host of other cosmetics. The story ran May 8.

Before there was a Richmond, Calif., there was Standard Oil, a 600-acre refinery built atop former marshland in 1901, reported Kristi Cole and producer Ben Trefny of KALW News of the San Francisco United School District on March 12. Standard was one of three industries that put Richmond on the map (the city was incorporated in 1905). But over the years, many Richmond residents seem to think that the giant refinery, the largest on the Pacific Coast, has hurt the town. The 30-minute radio documentary examined the history of the relationship between the company and the community. ( 03_12.ram)

Michael Janofsky of The New York Times was one of several reporters to cover a federal appeals court decision overturning a clean-air regulation issued by the Bush administration. On March 17, he wrote that the Bush plan would allow many power plants, refineries and factories to avoid installing costly new pollution controls to help offset any increased emissions caused by repairs and replacements of equipment. "The ruling by a three-judge panel was the court's second decision in less than a year in a pair of closely related cases involving the administration's interpretations of a complex section of the Clean Air Act," Janofsky wrote.


Roberto Santiago of The Miami Herald wrote about mercury in fish caught in area waterways. "The state health department says that people – especially pregnant women and children – should avoid eating predator fish such as bowfin, gar, and largemouth bass 14 inches or longer – especially in areas highlighted on its website," he wrote on April 30.

On the other end of the sunshine state on the same day, Nathan Crabbe of the Gainesville Sun wrote about another fish problem – the misunderstood and endangered sturgeon and a controversial restoration plan. University of Florida researcher Frank Chapman said, "The sturgeon is in trouble and we better do something about it because the fish aren't going to do it themselves."

Emily Heffter of the Seattle Times wrote May 2 that city's schools shut off drinking fountains in 100 public schools after tests found traces of arsenic in the water. "School-district officials don't think children were exposed to the water with arsenic – at least not enough to affect their health," she wrote. The district has already begun a $13 million project to replace pipes and fixtures amid concerns over high levels of lead and iron in some faucets.

On the other side of the country, another drinking water controversy played out. Howard Weiss-Tisman of the Brattleboro Reformer wrote May 11 about the battle over fluoride in drinking water in Bellow Falls, Vt. "Two public health experts with more than 60 years of experience between them assessed a 500-page report by the National Research Council and reached different conclusions," he wrote. "Now it is up to the voters of Bellows Falls to figure it out."

David Goldstein of Knight Ridder Newspapers wrote Feb. 7 about a newly discovered Food and Drug Administration report that indicated the agency had data at least three years ago that some soft drinks had unsafe levels of cancer-causing benzene.

"The Environmental Working Group, a private, nonprofit scientific research organization, found the data recently in a June 2003 FDA report chronicling the level of contaminants and nutrients in food and beverages," he wrote. "Known as the Total Diet Study, the report shows that between 1995 and 2001, nearly 80 percent of the diet cola that the FDA sampled had benzene levels higher than the limit allowable in drinking water. Among 24 diet cola samples, 19 had levels that were on average four times higher."

On March 27, Randy Lee Loftis of The Dallas Morning News wrote about drinking water system violations in Texas. Most "occur in small to medium-sized systems, which make up about 90 percent of state's drinking water systems but serve fewer than 10 percent of the 22 million Texans who get public water. Only 6 percent violated health standards in 2004. The 280 violators served 872,721 people, just 4 percent of all Texans. In 2005, however, the percentage of Texans who drank water from violator systems jumped to 13 percent. State regulators say they expect the percentage to go up again this year – not because the water is worse, but because the rules are getting tighter, and it takes some systems awhile to get into compliance," Loftis wrote.

Timothy B. Wheeler of the Baltimore Sun wrote May 11 that Exxon Mobil Corp. is facing more lawsuits over the 25,000-gallon gasoline leak at a service station this year that fouled ground water in the Jacksonville area of Baltimore County. The lawsuits accuse ExxonMobil of negligence for allowing the gas to leak from an underground fuel line at a service station. The suits also accused the company and the station operator, Storto Enterprises Inc., of knowingly failing to report the leak for 37 days and of exaggerating the success of cleanup efforts, Wheeler wrote.

Six residential and commercial wells have been contaminated enough by gasoline or its components to exceed state drinking-water guidelines, but officials say 62 residential wells show traces of methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE, a gasoline additive, the story said.

After last fall's Hurricane Katrina demolished most of New Orleans, the condition of flood protection levees continues to capture some journalistic attention. On April 17, Edward Epstein of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote about concerns for the 1,100 miles of levees along the Sacramento-San Joaquin River delta complex. "Government officials admit they have their fingers crossed that the system of flood barriers that has been starved for maintenance funding will survive the next few months and beyond without a disaster," he wrote. He quoted one area congressman, Republican Richard Pombo, as saying: "… under current conditions, it is not a question of if there will be a serious failure, but when."

Marina Strauss of the Toronto Globe and Mail wrote on April 23 about retailers painting themselves "green" to polish corporate images and boost profits. "They are adding more environmentally friendly products to store shelves and launching internal eco-sensitive programs, all in a bid to cut costs and respond to consumers' heightened awareness of the benefits of a clean environment." These new campaigns are not aimed at tree-huggers but the "conventional consumer."

Washington Monthly's Christina Larson wrote in the May edition about the controversy over an effort to sell off public lands for mining and other commercial lands. After environmental groups noticed a last-minute amendment to a budget reconciliation bill, Larson wrote that they "called allies in the Senate, where the measure could still be defeated. It didn't take much prodding before western Democrats were united against the provision. But to stop the land sales, Republican senators would also need to speak out. That was a harder sell."

Robert McClure of the Seattle Post- Intelligencer wrote about the Washington Legislature doing the opposite of the rest of the country – trying to build new dams rather than dismantling them. The legislature wanted to spend $200 million on dams. "To slake Eastern Washington's thirst, water would be siphoned off the West's largest river, the Columbia, and stored behind dams in massive lakes – although no one is sure yet whether such water would even be available," McClure wrote March 8.

South Dakota has arguably the best potential for wind power in the nation, but lags behind neighbors with lesser resources, wrote Ben Shouse of the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. One reason is the state's remoteness, but the inner workings of the electrical grid also pose challenges that are often more political and cultural than physical, he wrote in articles than ran March 26-28. ( apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20060326/NE WS/603260345/1001)

Jane Kay of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote on March 8 that federal regulators were considering a West Coast ban on fishing for some of the ocean's tiniest creatures, the shrimp-like krill that support a vast food web of fish, seabirds and whales. Such a ban would be a first. "[W]arming ocean waters and a drop in krill numbers last spring set off a domino effect of sea life deaths," causing the 19- member Pacific Fishery Management Council that advises the U.S. Department of Commerce on fishing regulations to recommend a limit on fishing of krill in federal waters, 200 miles from shore.

Judy Fahys of the Salt Lake Tribune wrote about the diverse coalition of Utahans – politicians, four-wheelers, green activists, business and even the top leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – telling the U.S. Bureau of Land Management that they oppose plans to transport nuclear reactor waste to the Skull Valley desert. A consortium of nuclear-power utility companies called PFS wants to build and operate a longterm storage facility for reactor waste on part of the Skull Valley Goshutes Reservation in Tooele County.

Alex deMarban of the Anchorage Daily News wrote about two Eskimo communities – among a dozen or more coastal villages in Alaska – losing ground to the Bering and Chukchi seas because warmer autumns are breeding more storms and melting shore ice that once stopped waves. "In recent years state and federal officials have considered relocating some of the villages but cost estimates in the hundreds of millions of dollars have slowed the discussion. This may be the first time escape roads and bridges, offering a cheaper short-term fix, will be built," he wrote on May 8.


Mike Dunne, assistant editor of the SEJournal, writes for The Advocate in Baton Rouge, La. 

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Summer, 2006 issue

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