• Cautionary Tales about LUST

  • Published April 2015. by Bill Leedham

    As this long winter finally recedes, springtime can sometimes lead to thoughts of LUST. Before readers get too excited, I am of course referring to Leaking Underground Storage Tanks, and not ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’. Although exact numbers are not readily available, there may be thousands of abandoned, out-of-service or forgotten Underground Storage Tanks (UST) across Canada, and each one presents a potential environmental liability.

    Underground tanks have been used for decades for residential heating oil storage, and for a wide variety of fuel and chemical products at commercial and industrial properties. Industrial/commercial operations may contain storage tanks for heating and/or automotive fuels, waste oils, paints, solvents, or to contain spills or fire suppression water at storage facilities. Spills, leaks or discharges can occur as a result of tank damage or failure; breaches in lines; over-filling or product transfers.

    In particular, residential heating oil tanks (both above and below ground) were common throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s, and some property owners may be unaware that these tanks are still present on their property even though their buildings have long been converted to natural gas heating. In some cases, following conversion to natural gas, the heating oil from these tanks may not have been removed and as the tanks started to corrode, any residual fuel in the UST could leak to the environment. Residences affected by basement fuel spills may require evacuation due to health concerns and fuel odours.

    As USTs are usually out of sight and out of mind; and discharges are not always evident until adverse impacts have already occurred, the potential financial implications can be huge. A tank removal without contamination can cost several thousand dollars for excavation, removal, confirmatory testing, and site restoration. Impacts beneath structures or in a complex subsurface environment like fractured bedrock, along with groundwater contamination and off-site migration can cost millions in fees for investigation, remediation and litigation.

    Many jurisdictions have specific regulations in place to govern the use, management and decommissioning of such tanks. Property owners need to determine whether storage tanks (especially UST) are, or have been, present, and to take appropriate actions when tanks are discovered or suspected. Property buyers, developers and financiers need to be keenly aware of the environmental risks and potentially significant liabilities associated with leaking UST’s.

    A thorough and diligent Phase 1 ESA by a competent Assessor can sometimes confirm or refute the potential presence of a UST, or help to reduce potential uncertainty regarding this concern. In my next blog I will discuss a few options property owners and consultants can explore if they know or suspect an underground tank may be present at a site.