35 Years of UST Compliance, How Far Have We Come

35 years ago in 1984, underground storage tanks (USTs) began their official regulated journey. However, the beginnings of the UST regulations began prior to that with concern of inventory loss due to corrosion of the UST system. In the mid-70s, trade associations like the Petroleum Equipment Institute (PEI), Steel Tank Institute (STI) and American Petroleum Institute’s (API) recognized that UST leaks presented a growing problem and began to form study groups to address issue. By 1981, less than 10 percent of all USTs in the ground were protected from corrosion, as estimated by the National Association of Corrosion Engineers (NACE).

Emphasis shifted in the early 1980s from tank regulations for safety reasons (i.e., fire codes) to regulations for protecting the environment and public health. Pressure to deal with the impact of leaking USTs on groundwater grew in 1983 when 60 Minutes aired a segment on leaking USTs. The story focused on gas stations and their leaking USTs that were contaminating a community’s underground aquifer and its water supply.

Shortly after that, President Reagan signed the 1984 Subtitle I RCRA amendments, Solid Waste Disposal Act, providing a comprehensive regulatory program for USTs storing regulated substances including petroleum. There were over two million USTs in 1984. Many of them were bare steel that were potentially corroding and leaking fuel into the ground. Studies, during that time, suggested about 1/3 of UST systems would fail a tightness test and potentially have petroleum releases. In 1985 the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Underground Storage Tanks (OUST) was created to carry out the mandate to develop and implement a new regulatory program for USTs.

In 1988, EPA published technical requirements for USTs containing petroleum or hazardous substances defined under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) of 1980. The technical requirements include leak detection, leak prevention, and corrective action for all USTs containing regulated substances. In 1988, EPA also published financial responsibility requirements for UST owners and operators to demonstrate financial responsibility for taking corrective action, as well as compensating third parties for bodily injury and property damage from releases of tanks containing petroleum. This regulation also included requirements for state program approval.

Also in 1988, “Must for UST” was published. This document informed UST owners about regulations and requirements governing their USTs and covered topics like leak detection, overfill prevention, spill containment, implementation, and the 1998 deadlines.

By December 22, 1998, all active regulated USTs were required to meet the initial 1988 UST performance standards. Many industry experts forecasted that there would be very few ongoing UST releases after this date and states would be able to sunset their UST trust funds in the mid-2000s.

However, UST systems continued to fail which began the first revisions to the UST rules with the UST Compliance Act of 2005 (Energy Act).

On August 8, 2005, President Bush signed the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Title XV, Subtitle B of the act (titled the Underground Storage Tank Compliance Act of 2005) contains amendments to Subtitle I of the Solid Waste Disposal Act, the original legislation that created the UST program.

The UST provisions of the Energy Policy Act focus on preventing releases. Among other things, it expanded eligible uses of the Leaking Underground Storage Tank (LUST) Trust Fund and included provisions regarding inspections, operator training, delivery prohibition, secondary containment, financial responsibility, and cleanup of releases that contain oxygenated fuel additives. While the Energy Policy Act was passed in 2005, the guidelines of the act were not effective until August 8, 2007. Under the guidelines, a state had until August 8, 2009, to develop state-specific requirements consistent with EPA’s guidelines and set implementation by August 8, 2012. Many states elected to implement the requirements in advance of the deadline.

On July 15, 2015, EPA published the 2015 UST regulation and the 2015 state program approval regulation. The revisions strengthened the 1988 federal UST regulations by increasing emphasis on properly operating and maintaining UST equipment to help prevent and detect UST releases. The revisions will also help ensure all USTs in the United States, including those in Indian country, meet the same minimum standards.

The 2015 UST regulation changed certain portions of the 1988 UST technical regulation in 40 CFR part 280. The changes established federal requirements that are similar to key portions of the Energy Policy Act of 2005. In addition, EPA added new operation and maintenance requirements and addressed UST systems deferred in the 1988 UST regulation. Under the regulations, a state had until October 13, 2018, to develop state-specific requirements consistent with EPA’s guidelines and set implementation by October 18, 2021. The implementation of these new rules is varying widely depending on if the state is an EPA state approved program (SPA) or the state’s rule adoption process.

“Must for UST” was updated in 2015 to reflect the new regulations. EPA added new operation and maintenance requirements and addressed UST systems deferred in the 1988 UST regulation. Below is a summary of five key operational changes:

  • Overfill Prevention Equipment Inspections – Overfill protection equipment must be tested and operationally inspected once every three years, and the owner must demonstrate that the equipment operates properly. In addition, owners must inspect automatic shut-off devices, flow restrictors, and alarms.
  • Spill Bucket Testing – Spill prevention equipment must be tested once every three years. The spill bucket must be liquid tight and in proper operational condition.
  • Sumps and Under Dispenser Containment (UDC) Integrity Testing – Once every three years, tank owners must test all sumps used for interstitial monitoring, and the test must show that the equipment is liquid tight using either vacuum, pressure, or liquid testing methods. If you have double-walled sumps and/or automatic alarm shut-off sensors, your requirements may be different.
  • Sumps, UDC and Release Detection Equipment Inspection Visual – Once a year, tank owners must visually check the sumps for damage, releases, and leaks. Also, probes and sensor tests must be conducted annually to ensure they are in operational condition.
  • Monthly Spill Bucket and Release Detection Walk Through Inspections – Every 30 days, tank owners must conduct monthly UST system walkthrough inspections for spill buckets, fill caps, release detection equipment, alarm conditions, check/remove obstructions in fill pipe, and check interstice of double-walled spill buckets (if present).
  • Compatibility Determination – Owners and operators must use UST systems made of or lined with materials that are compatible with the substance stored in the UST system. Owners and operators notify the implementing agency at least 30 days prior to switching to a regulated substance containing greater than 10 percent ethanol, greater than 20 percent biodiesel.

After years on the periphery of American political life, climate change is having a bit of a moment. Activists (along with five Democratic presidential candidates and at least 100 members of Congress) have rallied behind a Green New Deal that proposes a crash program to decarbonize the US economy. Polls on climate change show rising rates of concern across the country and among both political parties. It seems that after decades near the bottom of Democratic priority list, climate has broken into the top two or three.

Now proposals are being made to significantly change the use of petroleum for transportation. The Green New Deal (GND) aims to address climate change and economic inequality. The initial draft proposes that the United States (US) archives net-zero emissions by 2030.

In one GND – FAQ that was given to National Public Radio, one of the highlighted projects was to “totally overhaul transportation by massively expanding electric vehicle manufacturing, build charging stations everywhere, build out high-speed rail at a scale where air travel stops becoming necessary, create affordable public transit available to all, with goal to replace every combustion-engine vehicle.”

Michael Bloomberg has founded Beyond Carbon, an effort that he described as a “grassroots effort to begin moving America as quickly as possible away from oil and gas and toward a 100 percent clean energy economy.”

Today there are around 500,000 USTs operating at 200,000 sites. Significant Operational Compliance is at 70% and there are approximately 65,000 sites left to be cleaned up. Since 1984, almost 2,000,000 USTs have been closed and 500,000 sites cleaned up.

The U.S. EPA’s UST program has made significant contributions to protect the environment during the last 35 years. One of the main reasons for the program’s success is the involvement of everyone in the process from states, territories, tribes, industry, owners/operators, service providers, equipment manufacturers, and trade associations have worked together from the beginning and continue to work together today. As we are in the middle of implementing the next set of UST requirements, I am confident we will continue to see improvement in compliance, reduction in the number of releases, and improved responses to potential releases.


“Learn About Underground Storage Tanks (USTs)”, EPA, Environmental Protection Agency

11 Apr. 2017, https://www.epa.gov/ust/learn-about-underground-storage-tanks-usts

“30 Years of The UST Program”, EPA, Office of Underground Storage Tanks

11 Apr. 2017, https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-05/documents/30year-timeline.pdf

“Semiannual Report Of UST Performance Measures End Of Fiscal Year 2018 (October 1, 2017-

September 30, 2018)”, EPA, Office of Underground Storage Tanks

11 Apr. 2017, https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2018-11/documents/ca-18-34.pdf

“Musts For USTs”, EPA, Environmental Protection Agency

11 Apr. 2017, https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-12/documents/musts_for_usts.pdf

“60 Minutes Check the Water, August 9, 1984”, YouTube, Ben Thomas

17 Jan. 2017, https://youtu.be/leYoLtsQ2WQ

Siegel, Josh. “’Green New Deal’ could win over centrists by avoiding a ban on fossil fuels”, Washington Examiner

MediaDC, 7 Feb. 2019, https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/policy/energy/green-new-deal-could-win-over-centrists-by-avoiding-a-ban-on-fossil-fuels


Contributed by Todd Perry, P.G., Principal