WASHINGTON-Underground storage tanks have been called ticking time bombs. Consequently, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued a wake-up call in an effort to keep car dealerships and other businesses abreast of an approaching regulatory deadline, Dec. 22, 1998, to upgrade or replace their underground tanks.
``The majority of (car) dealers still have bare steel tanks for used oil storage,'' said Doug Greenhaus, an attorney with the National Automobile Dealers Association.
The NADA has not surveyed its members on how many have complied with the regulations, he said.
The EPA has published a booklet-``Don't Wait Until 1998''-outlining what dealers must do to comply with expensive tank regulations.
The agency warns that the cost of equipment and installation is expected to jump as the deadline approaches.
``It's because of simple supply and demand. The contractors will be in the driver's seat and they will charge whatever the traffic will bear. Contractors might not even be available (if dealers wait too long),'' said Irv Auerbach, special assistant to the director of the EPA's Office of Underground Storage Tanks.
Compliance is already expensive.
The EPA estimates it costs roughly $4,000 to upgrade a tank and as much as $20,000 to replace an old tank with a new one. Closing a tank costs $5,000 to $11,000, including emptying and cleaning the tank, removing it or filling it and leaving it in place.
There are about 1.14 million active underground tanks nationwide, according to EPA estimates, and about 400,000 already meet the 1998 standards for tanks.
``But a lot of those tanks don't meet spill containment and overfill protection requirements, so less than 25 percent of the tanks are in full compliance,'' Mr. Auerbach said.
``I would guess that the issue has been ongoing for so long that most dealers have addressed the issue by either moving tanks above ground or removing them,'' said NADA director Buzz Braley, of Braley & Graham Co., a Buick-Pontiac-GMC Truck-Hyundai-Isuzu dealership in Portland, Ore.
``When we had to consider adding a monitoring device, I just decided I wasn't interested in having anything underground any more. We took it out and went above ground,'' he said.
Nationally, some 954,000 tanks have been shut down since 1988-mostly to avoid the risk of contamination, said Mr. Auerbach.
The EPA has counted at least 288,000 tank leaks over the last seven years.
Tank owners and operators have initiated cleanup at about 225,000 sites and completed about 119,000.
Failure to comply on time subjects tank owners to penalties. The federal government has cited 165 tank owners, mostly for leak detection violations. The average penalty is $8,400, EPA figures show. The states have taken 9,500 enforcement actions against tank owners, Mr. Auerbach said.
For copies of ``Don't Wait Until 1998. Spill, Overfill, and Corrosion Protection for Underground Storage Tanks,'' call the EPA's toll-free hot line at (800) 424-9346.