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Haul Out or Clean Up

Preventing fuel tank contamination


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At the former Timber Pump Station of the Haines-Fairbanks Pipeline system, the FUDS program conducted a project in 2017 to remove aboveground storage tanks, underground storage tanks, and petroleum contaminated soils. Over 11,500 tons of petroleum soil was excavated and treated off-site.

Ron Broyles | USACE

 

For many Alaskans it’s still necessary to use fuel tanks to heat their homes as well as to provide fuel for commercial businesses and government facilities. And while these tanks are vital to the state’s well-being, they are often out of sight and out of mind—which means that no one pays much attention to them until there’s a problem.

A leaking fuel tank causes nothing but problems, including contaminating groundwater, which not only adversely affects people in the community but also populations of fish and other wildlife. In some cases, underground tanks have been left to corrode for so long that they have wreaked havoc on the environment, resulting in state and federal programs designed to address the damage.

According to the Alaska Department of Conservation, about one-third of the sites in its contaminated sites program are on federal lands, with most of these on military bases. Another one-third are privately owned and can include commercial and/or industrial properties. The rest are owned by the state and local governments.

Whether dealing with an individual tank or sites with numerous abandoned tanks that need to be decommissioned, companies that maintain, clean, and remove dirty or damaged fuel tanks play a huge part in protecting Alaska’s environment.

 

Bering Straits Native Corporation

Eagle Eye Electric in Chefornak, Alaska.

Alaska Army National Guard Sites

Eagle Eye Electric, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Bering Straits Native Corporation (BSNC), is in the process of draining and closing—or bringing up to compliance standards—diesel fuel tanks in more than fifty Alaska communities. The forty-eight-month contract for cleanup was awarded in September 2015 by the Alaska Army National Guard (AKARNG), which is funding the tank closure as a way to reduce federal liability associated with the sites. To date, the field effort is complete, though reporting is still underway.

“AKARNG has many facilities throughout the state of Alaska, and the vast majority of these sites have fuel oil storage tanks, many of which were not in compliance with federal regulations due to lack of required appurtenances,” says Miriam Aarons, corporate communications director, BSNC. “Remote sites may not have assigned personnel onsite to be able to regularly inspect these tanks, leaving them vulnerable to vandalism and [at] increased risk for spills.

Bering Straits Native Corporation

Eagle Eye Electric in Kipnuk, Alaska.

“The old Scout Armory Program that allowed AKARNG to operate these small facilities is no longer active, and since then the facilities have been sitting empty with very little use,” she continues. “Because AKARNG no longer has a mission requirement in these communities, the National Guard Bureau no longer funds their support, so they must be closed. The fuel tanks do not meet current regulatory safety standards, and due to high liability needed to be drained, capped, and marked as closed as part of a process of divesting the facilities.”

The work performed by Eagle Eye Electric not only assisted AKARNG and the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs by satisfying regulatory requirements and reducing the threat of oil spills, it benefited local communities as well. After being filtered for water and sediment, unused fuel was donated to local tribal organizations.

Being Straits Native Corporation

An incinerator that is used to dispose of oily water on site.

“BSNC donated 39,088 gallons to rural Alaska village corporations for use by residents,” says BSNC shareholder and Eagle Eye Project Manager Dawn Mocan. Eagle Eye encouraged tribal organizations to gift the fuel to elders or families in need.

“BSNC continues to nurture and grow an excellent business reputation with its biggest customer, the federal government,” adds BSNC President and CEO Gail R. Schubert of the contract’s success. “I am glad that this project provided a valuable benefit to rural Alaskans who are impacted by the high cost of living.”

 

Dena O'Dell | USACE

Andy Sorum, project manager with the Formerly Used Defense Sites program, US Army Corps of Engineers Alaska District, looks on as employees with Bristol Environmental Remediation Services load and prepare to bag contaminated soil during an environmental cleanup project at Attu Island.

Formerly Used Defense Sites (FUDS) Program

The FUDS program is responsible for sites formerly owned, leased, or operated by the Department of Defense prior to 1986. Though they may no longer be the property owner, the government is still responsible for environmental liabilities present on these properties.

According to Lisa Geist, acting FUDS program manager for the US Army Corps of Engineers Alaska District, there were a total of 535 eligible FUDS properties in Alaska, of which 137 had Department of Defense impacts that needed to be addressed. So far, seventy-three of these properties have been closed out and sixty-four properties have projects remaining.

USACE Alaska District

The FUDS Program removed a large above ground storage tank from the former Nome Tank Site E FUDS property in 2015. The associated petroleum contaminated soil was excavated and has been treated using land farming techniques over the past three field seasons. The soils are expected to be remediated by 2019.

“We concentrate on three areas: containerized hazardous, toxic, or radioactive waste (CON/HTRW); hazardous, toxic, or radioactive water (HTRW); and the military munitions response program (MMRP),” Geist says.

Of the 428 total projects identified (properties can have multiple projects), 253 projects have been completed. There are still 69 CON/HTRW projects, 66 HTRW projects, and 40 MMRP projects awaiting further action.

“It’s our priority to deal with hazardous and toxic waste sites first,” says Geist, adding that these sites are located all over the state from the Aleutians to Nome to Southeast Alaska. “When human or environmental health is at risk, we address it in the most proactive manner. For example, if there is ground water contamination close to a village, that project would take priority over a less risky site. Unfortunately, due to annual funding levels, we can’t work on every single site at the same time.”

Dena O'Dell | USACE

 An excavator operated by Bristol Environmental Remediation Services digs up contaminated soil and old, rusted diesel drums during an environmental cleanup project at Attu Island. 

The majority of CON/HTRW projects deal with petroleum contamination, when tanks or drums have leaked and tainted the soil. The Corps follows the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act process for hazardous sites, which includes a preliminary assessment phase; site inspection and documentation; a remedial investigation to determine the nature of the damage and projected expense of clean up; a feasibility study of ways to clean up the site; remedial alternatives that include a proposed plan that is open to public comment; and a decision document for approvals by those who will oversee or be involved in the project. Once all of that is complete, the project moves into the remedial action phase.

While the Corps is working hard to clean up FUDS sites, funding limits what can be done and how quickly projects can be completed. The Alaska District has spent approximately $980 million (through 2017) on FUDS investigations and clean-up work. Current funding for fiscal year 2018 is $35 million, with next year’s budget estimated to be $30 million. The estimated cost of future environmental liability for all remaining projects in Alaska is $1.4 billion.

 

Alaska Clean Tanks

Alaska Clean Tanks cleaning a residential underground storage tank.

Residential and Commercial Tanks

While government agencies are taking the lead in cleaning up sites affected by leaking tanks, individuals should also take the responsibility of making sure that their own home and business tanks are safe. Robert and Robin Wilson, owners of Alaska Clean Tanks, started their business in response to requests from homeowners who found themselves dealing with fuel tank issues.

“Bob was working as the general manager of a local heating company, and he’d be getting calls when people’s tanks weren’t working, especially in the winter months when furnaces and boilers failed,” says Robin Wilson, adding that problems are often attributed to water in fuel or frozen and clogged fuel lines. “There wasn’t a solution to dirty tanks and the issues that they caused. At the time, no one in town cleaned residential, commercial, or government fuel storage tanks; they would just pump out the water and keep changing filters.”

Alaska Clean Tanks was established in March 2013 to help customers with fuel issues, including damaged or dirty tanks. Even more important, they maintain tanks so that these types of problems never have the chance to reach contamination level.

“We are, I believe, the only company in Alaska that offers the type of tank cleaning that removes fuel and cleans, polishes, and stores it before the tank is cleaned,” says Bob Wilson. “You cannot effectively clean a fuel storage tank without removing the fuel first.”

Alaska Clean Tanks

Alaska Clean Tanks cleaning a residential aboveground storage tank.

A camera is used to view the inside of the tank multiple times: prior to cleaning and the fuel being returned. “Our methods result in a clean tank and clean fuel, with a minimal amount of HAZMAT to dispose of,” he adds.

Though headquartered in Fairbanks, Alaska Clean Tanks flies equipment wherever it is needed. “There is nowhere that we cannot go or will not go,” says Wilson, who has the capability of treating residential, commercial, and government aboveground storage tanks and underground storage tanks from 100 to 40,000 gallons.

One of the problems, according to Wilson, is that some tanks are not regulated by the federal government, such as those that hold heating oil, so there is no oversight of tanks in residences or on commercial properties.

“You can sell a home with a tank, and the tank does not have to be inspected,” says Wilson. “In Fairbanks, where the majority of homes use heating oil, some of these tanks may have been in the ground for fifty or sixty years. A buyer—and a seller for that matter—may be unaware of the environmental damage a leaking tank can cause.

“Fuel oil tanks cannot be insured in Alaska, so the liability falls on the owner if there’s a leak; that can easily be a $40,000 bill, and they have no recourse to get the money back,” he adds.

When fuel tanks need to be decommissioned or cleaned so that maintenance can be performed, Alaska Clean Tanks uses a microbial cleaner to eliminate sludge and residual fuel, as well as vapors and LELs (lower explosive limits) so that the tank can be safely entered or cut open prior to disposal. If the tank is removed, the hole is backfilled and compacted, and if it is left in the ground, it is filled with pea gravel or slurry.

All HAZMAT (sludge, water, and contaminated fuel removed from the tank) is disposed of according to federal, state, and local regulations at Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation-approved facilities. Tanks that are removed are cleaned, and a large hole is cut in the tank before it is delivered to a steel recycling facility.

Alaska Clean Tanks

Alaska Clean Tanks cleaning a commercial underground storage tank.

According to Wilson, maintaining a tank is a good investment. “Homeowners’ insurance will not cover a fuel spill from an above or below ground fuel tank, with the exception of vandalism,” he explains. “It makes more sense to get a fuel tank checked out and cleaned, especially if it is over fifteen years old. If it is over thirty years old, it may be time to consider replacing the tank.”

He adds that it is also a good idea to have the tank cleaned or even replaced if a homeowner is replacing a furnace or boiler.

“Most people will agree that the only time they have a problem with the heat not working in their homes or businesses is during the winter or at inopportune times; and we all know that after-hours furnace repairs are not inexpensive,” says Wilson, adding that if the problem is caused by clogged fuel lines, temporary tanks may need to be set up until the tanks can be cleaned during warmer weather.

Clean tanks are also more economical, as they provide the best environment for fuel to burn efficiently. “Unclean fuel can clog nozzles, as well as cause other problems,” says Wilson, who suggests that home and business owners should plan tank maintenance the same way they schedule any other preventive maintenance.

 

 

Vanessa Orr is a freelance writer and former editor of the Capital City Weekly in Juneau.

 

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