The government owns hundreds of underground fuel tanks — many designed for emergencies back in the Cold War — that need to be inspected for leaks of hazardous substances that could be making local water undrinkable.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has known since at least the 1990s that tanks under its supervision around the country could be leaking fuel into soil and groundwater, according to Associated Press interviews and research.
The agency knows of at least 150 underground tanks that need to be inspected for leaks, according to spokeswoman Debbie Wing. FEMA also is trying to determine by September whether an additional 124 tanks are underground or above ground and whether they are leaking.
There has been no documentation of reported leaks or harm to communities from the FEMA tanks, Wing said, although former agency officials and congressional testimony suggest that the federal tanks have long been seen as a problem.
Many of these tanks were built to store 5,000 gallons of diesel fuel and placed around the country at the height of the Cold War back in the 1960s to fuel electric generators that could sustain emergency broadcasts by radio stations in case of a nuclear attack or other catastrophe. Made of steel, the tanks inevitably rust over time and allow fuel to escape.
Steel tanks left in the ground for decades rot like Swiss cheese, said Pat Coyne, director of business development for Environmental Data Resources Inc. Coyne said a joke in the industry is: "What percentage of steel tanks leak? 100 percent!"
In the late 1980s and early 1990s the government insisted on better-made tanks. The underground tanks of today must have safety measures including leak detection and an extra shell made with material resistant to gasoline, diesel and ethanol, Coyne said.
The FEMA tanks are part of a larger problem. More than 500,000 leaking storage tanks — most of which are filled with fuel and oil — are buried across the country, according to Environmental Data Resources, based in Milford, Conn. That's about half of all the underground tanks in the country, the consulting company says. Those tanks are owned privately or by local, state and federal agencies.
Because they're underground, leaking tanks can go undetected for years. If diesel leaks into drinking water, affected people could be at a higher risk of cancer, kidney damage and nervous system disorders, said Rochelle Cardinale, one of the lead coordinators for underground tank cleanup in Iowa. A gallon of fuel can contaminate 1 million gallons of water.
FEMA says the hundreds of federal tanks have not always been its responsibility. The Federal Communications Commission also has had oversight, although FCC spokesman Clyde Ensslin said the commission believed FEMA was responsible for monitoring and maintaining the tanks. FEMA said it spent $8 million in the 1990s removing and repairing some of them.
FEMA now acknowledges that it is the agency responsible for all of the tanks in question.
But Senate testimony from 1992 suggests FEMA has long tried to avoid having to deal with the tanks.
"For years FEMA resisted acknowledging the problem or seeking funds for remediation," former FEMA union president Leo Bosner said in 1992 before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee.
He said then there were more than 2,000 underground oil storage tanks that FEMA had paid for or acquired over the years. But FEMA came out with a legal opinion that year concluding that it wasn't responsible for the tanks.
Congress eventually decided it didn't matter which agency owned the tanks — FEMA would fund tank inspection, removal and replacement, said Bill Cumming, who at the time ran FEMA's ethics program.
FEMA did eventually receive reports about leaking tanks, said Jane Bullock, who was the agency's chief of staff in the Clinton administration.
Many of FEMA's out-of-use fuel tanks today have yet to be inspected because officials only recently finished going through decades of paperwork from the different federal agencies that at one point participated in the emergency broadcasting program.
"We are committed to upholding our obligations to remediate, remove or upgrade them as necessary," FEMA spokesman Dan Stoneking told the AP. "We believe in adhering to any relevant environmental rule or law and will do so."
FEMA disclosed the problems to the EPA in August 2007, a step that could lead to reduced penalties against FEMA. In May, the EPA formally requested information about the status of the tanks.
FEMA said it now oversees 1,129 defunct tanks — including the hundreds that could be leaking — many of which were inherited from the FCC and the Civil Defense Preparedness Agency.
Recently FEMA found the location of most of the defunct tanks by looking through old records. To determine the tanks' conditions requires a physical inspection, and agency contractors have been going to each location and searching with hand-held metal detectors and other tools.
FEMA will determine what to do with the defunct tanks — such as remove them or fill them with sand — on a case-by-case basis, because of varying state laws.
A 2005 law required all federal agencies to submit an inventory to Congress and the EPA of all the tanks they owned or operated, and whether the tanks were in compliance with the law.
The inventory was pushed by private gasoline retailers who long have argued that they were being targeted for violations by a government that wasn't following its own rules.
In the 1960s the federal government gave fuel tanks and generators to radio stations across the country so that vital information could be broadcast during an emergency. The program was managed by the FCC in some parts of the country, and elsewhere by the former Civil Defense Preparedness Agency. Broadcast stations volunteered for the program, and by 1979 about 700 stations participated.
When FEMA was created in 1979 it took over programs run by the civil defense agency. Broadcast stations began to drop out of the program and funding was slowly eliminated between 1987 and 1994.
FEMA manages fewer tanks now because of new broadcast technology and a realignment of oversight responsibilities to states. Now FEMA oversees only 38 in-use underground tanks that are being maintained to comply with EPA rules. These tanks are used for broadcast stations and to fuel generators to keep emergency operations centers running during a disaster.