Albion Monitor /News

State Loosens Gasoline Spill Cleanup Rules

by Jeff Elliott

"It's another example of behind-closed-door deal making"

With one member of the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board calling it the sign of a "kinder, gentler December," the Board decided on December 7th to send out letters announcing that property owners will no longer be required to clean up "low risk" pollution from leaking underground tanks.

The letter defines low-risk cases as those where no drinking water wells are within 250 feet of the leak and the contamination is only found in shallow groundwater, less than 50 feet below ground. In all cases, the source of the pollution, such as a rusting gasoline tank, must be removed.

A few days later at a December 13th workshop for consultants and contractors held in Santa Rosa, program manager Luis Rivera estimated that about 50 cases will be closed soon, and another 200 sites deemed low-risk will likely be eligible. There are roughly 660 known sites in the North Coast Region, slightly more than half of them in Sonoma County.

According to Rivera, there will be no public hearings before the new policy is implemented.

These new recommendations come as a shock to environmentalists, who charge that the state is playing politics with safe drinking water. "The enviromental community was caught unawares by this," says Ed Walsh of Clean Water Action, a national non-profit with over 50,000 California members. "It's another example of behind-closed-door deal making. We'd like policies like this to be announced to the public so we'd have a chance to comment on it first."

"You can leave a lot of material there and nature will take care of it"

The regional board's new policy was suggested by the state earlier this month, and based on a Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) report issued in mid-October.

The report notes that very few public water supplies are polluted because of underground tanks, and removing enough contamination to match drinking water standards is not cost-effective.

Most controversial in the report are recommendations that could be applied to many of the state's 21,000 contaminated sites. Except for ongoing tests to make sure that the pollution does not worsen over time, the report says no cleanup should be required.

"The message was to get out the heavily contaminated soil and leave the rest," explains James Giannopoulos, manager of the underground storage tank program for the State Water Board. "Besides [removing the fuel] tanks, Lawrence Livermore recommends removing to the point of residual saturation -- basically removing free product. The Lawrence Livermore team said you can leave a lot of material there and nature will take care of it."

The findings in the LLNL report include recommendations that "passive bioremediation" -- leaving the contaminated soil alone -- should be used whenever possible. This means that microorganisms in the soil will eventually break the fuel oil down into simple carbon dioxide and water.

These same microorganisms, the report states, keeps the "plume" -- the pocket of petroleum waste in the soil, or usually in shallow groundwater --from spreading further. "If you remove the active source, plumes tend to retreat because of microbial action," says David Rice, one of the report's authors. "They don't move very far. What's making them stop? The answer is the microbes."

According to the report, 90 percent of the plumes with high levels of benzene, a proven human carcinogen, travel less than 250 feet. This distance, in the new state and regional guidelines, is the safe distance between the contamination and a source of drinking water.

Soil would be considered passable as long as gasoline does not drip from it

Hogwash, critics say.

"The notion that 250 feet [of distance] from a well is going to save you is ridiculous," says Robert Criss, a geologist at Washington University who studies pollution in California's aquifers. "Our research shows that 100 meters of lateral [horizontal] motion per year is not unusual.

"In Sacramento, we can see water flowing 5 kilometers laterally. When you pump water out, you create a 'cone of depression' -- a cone-shaped depression in the water table. In Sacramento, that cone is about 10 kilometers across; it underlies most of the city. As a result, the river 5 kilometers away is trying to spill in to fill this void."

Criss has long warned that disaster looms for the state, predicting there will be no potable water in areas such as the Salinas Valley within five years. As reported in an earlier story on his research, Criss found the entire Central Valley water supply contaminated by chemicals used by agribusiness.

Critics are also skeptical about the new policy declaring pollution in the shallow aquifer -- meaning the water within 50 feet of the surface -- to be low risk. Many people, particularly in the North Coast region, rely upon wells as little as 30 feet deep.

"In most of our cases, it's not deep groundwater," says Duane Miller, a Sacramento attorney who represents cities and individuals against underground tank polluters. "It's from people with contaminated springs or wells."

In one 1991 suit in Trinidad (Humboldt County), a shallow water well was contaminated from about one-half mile away. And the concentration of gasoline was so heavy that public health officials warned them not to light a cigarette in their bathroom -- their toilet might explode.

Also, hydrologists point out, there is no barrier between the shallow aquifer and deeper sources. Water flows between the two levels, particularly in winter when the water table rises and rain pushes shallow water deeper. As a result, many cities have a layer of gasoline floating on the top of the aquifer. Under San Francisco, this layer is five feet thick. And in porous California soil, the petroleum will sometimes continue to sink until it meets the aquifer. "In some cases, the contamination is 400 feet down," Miller says.

Heavily criticized is the recommendation that passive bioremediation be used instead of other methods of cleanup that are more thorough -- but more expensive. While most soil does contain microbes that eat petroleum hydrocarbons, other factors, such as the types of microbes found in the soil and the amount of oxygen, can limit the effectiveness.

Also important is "residual saturation" -- how much of the soil is deemed unsuitable after the tank is removed. This guideline is not defined in the LLNL report. How much residual saturation is acceptable? Author David Rice says as much as one percent of the soil could be gasoline byproducts.

One critic points out that this means contaminated soil would be considered passable as long as gasoline does not drip from it. Soil containing 1,200 parts per million of gasoline -- about ten times lower than the example offered by Rice -- will actually burn.

"We're assigning no value to future water quality"

Although all state and local water officials interviewed stress that the type of cleanup required will be decided on a case-by-case basis, all praised the science found LLNL report.

But only recently have copies of the report and word about the new state policies began to leak out to the public. None of the environmental groups contacted knew of the changes, nor did most officials outside of the water boards. Consultants for the state senate Toxic and Public Safety Committee which oversees legislation on leaking underground tanks, for example, only learned about the report and the new state policy earlier this week.

The Albion Monitor has obtained memos critical of the report that have been quietly circulating among alarmed Bay Area health officials, regulators, and water experts. Most memos are unsigned, and the critics interviewed -- all of whom work on underground tank cleanup as public employees or consultants -- would not allow their names to be used because of fear of reprisals.

Among charges made by critics:

  • The LLNL report relies heavily upon written and verbal communications, papers written by the petroleum industry, and other unpublished and non-peer reviewed sources
  • No public health professionals from unbiased agencies, such as CAL EPA, the Department of Public Health, or similar agencies were solicited for their recommendations or review
  • None of the actual data were included in the report for examination
  • It was inappropriate for LLNL to prepare the report because the Laboratory itself is a contaminated site and responsible for expensive cleanup, which could have biased their recommendations

    "California has been on the leading edge nationwide of protecting the environment," one memo states. "[Once the LLNL report is adopted,] California will overnight become the nation's leader in allowing petroleum hydrocarbon contamination to go unabated and untreated. Time will tell if this is a vaild approach...[but] if the LLNL report is flawed, the damage to the environment may be irreparable..."

    Some critics interviewed noted that the new policies reflect the ongoing debate in Congress, balancing dollars against risks to people's health. Under laws passed because of Proposition 65, no carcinogens such as benzene are allowed in a source of California drinking water. State standards are even stricter than federal EPA guidelines, allowing 1 part per billion of benzene compared to the EPA limit of 5 parts per billion. Under recommendations found in the LLNL report, the cost of the cleanup can outweigh all but the most immediate threats to the water supply.

    "I can sympathize," says geologist Robert Criss. "The trouble is that there is no easy way to clean up the aquifer once a spill occurs, and we want to put what money we have into doing sensible things. But I'd argue that we're not doing sensible things; we're assigning no value to future water quality."

    Says regional program manager Luis Rivera, "Under Prop. 65, we're backed into protecting water to the strictest level. But the message I'm hearing is that it's going too far -- if we protect everything to that degree it's going to be too expensive. That's what the struggle is here."

    By the next North Coast Board meeting in Santa Rosa on January 25, Rivera and his staff hope to present a list of cases that match the new guidelines. "I'm sure that were going to have a number of closures," Rivera says. "There's probably 20 cases that can be closed without controversy. But the [sites eligible for] passive bioremediation must be looked at on a case-by-case basis."

    Rivera is aware that the LLNL report has its critics, but says these new guidelines are just for the interim, before new state regulations are adopted in 1997. "It's the launching of an idea; how it's implemented remains to be seen."

  • Albion Monitor December 21, 1995 (

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