Toxic air pollution and groundwater contamination from an extended network of gas stations is a multi-billion-dollar problem across the United States and beyond, and it’s set to get worse as the latest generation of underground storage tanks reach the end of their 30-year lifespans.
Curtailing the problem is just one of the benefits of the accelerating shift to electric vehicles. But petroleum contamination, much of it at gas stations, already accounts for half of the roughly 450,000 brownfield sites in the United States, Grist reports.
A brownfield is an abandoned former industrial or commercial site where soil and other contamination must be cleaned up before it can be reused. Two decades ago, a federal program first proposed [pdf] by Canada’s National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy funded brownfield remediation projects that brought many of those properties back into use (including, as it happens, the former gas station site where this story synopsis is being written), delivering badly-needed new property tax revenue to municipalities.
Grist reporter Kate Yoder opens her story at an Arco station in North Seattle, with drivers fuelling their gas-powered cars while the founder of Coltura, a non-profit working to accelerate the country’s shift of gasoline, described the site as a “hazardous materials facility”.
Surveying the scene, Matthew Metz “marvelled at the risks that everyone was taking, even if they weren’t aware of it,” Grist writes. “Drivers pumped their tanks with gas, breathing carcinogens like benzene, the source of gasoline’s signature sweet smell. On the east side of the property, tall white pipes that vent toxic vapours from petroleum kept underground stood just 10 feet away from the window of a child care centre. Hidden below the station is a tract of contaminated soil that extends underneath a neighbouring apartment building.”
That particular Arco site has a decades-long history of leaks, with cleanup efforts leaving behind trace amounts of lead, benzene, and another suspected carcinogen, methyl tertiary-butyl ether. But “almost every gas station eventually pollutes the earth beneath it,” Grist writes. “The main culprit: the underground storage tanks that hold tens of thousands of gallons of fuel, one of the most common sources of groundwater pollution.” A typical station has two or three giant tanks, each holding up to 30,000 gallons/113,500 litres of gasoline or diesel.
“Leaks can occur at any point—in the storage tank itself, in the gas pumps, and in the pipes that connect them”—and a mere 38 litres of gasoline can contaminate 45 million litres of groundwater. Cleaning up a single gas station can cost US$1 million, and so far, more than a half-million leaks have been confirmed across the U.S.
At one point, there was a rush to replace a previous generation of old, leaky steel tanks. In 2007, Grist says, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said the cost of the cleanup would exceed $22 billion. And those new installations are now reaching the end of their 30-year warranties, “when there’s broad consensus they are highly likely to leak.”
Those risks are making insurance companies even more hesitant to provide coverage, prompting states like Washington to offer full, state-backed insurance. But with EVs on the rise, Metz questioned the need to prop up a business that is rapidly dying out.
“The whole financial underpinnings of gas stations are starting to crumble,” he told Yoder.
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