Two-year-old Brittney Shepardson has spent most of her short life in a Moab house that often filled with fumes rising from an underground gasoline spill.
Recently, Brittney had a high fever that wouldn't break, so her parents took her to a hospital in Grand Junction, Colo. Doctors found cysts in her lungs."They won't say it had something to do with the fumes, but they won't say it didn't have anything to do with them either," said Brittney's father, Dwayne.
"The cysts may have come from an infection from her tonsils and adenoids, which are scheduled to be taken out. But we also wonder if the fumes could have had something to do with it. She lived almost her whole life with those fumes. . . . We finally moved out of that house on Feb. 1," he said.
Gasoline stations sit quietly near most Utah neighborhoods. Few people realize that hundreds of the underground storage tanks are likely now leaking - posing potentially devastating environmental, health or fire threats.
Officials traced the Moab leak that affected the Shepardsons back to a corner with two gasoline stations. Leaks there have spread gasoline underground across an estimated 10-12 acres, sending fumes above to many houses and buildings, damaging the water table and threatening a nearby creek.
Various local health and fire departments in Utah reported that they also investigated 48 other similar leaks in the state last year, although the leak in Moab is apparently the largest.
Meanwhile, the state and federal governments are gearing up new programs to assess the condition of the estimated 20,000 or so tanks in the state and to begin soon-to-be required periodic tank inspection, maintenance and repair.
Their rough estimates about the condition of tanks in the state raise concern.
For example, Mark T. Ellis, who directs the new underground storage tank program for the Utah Bureau of Solid and Hazardous Waste Management, says 83 percent of the underground tanks in Utah are more than 20 years old.
Most tanks that old are made of bare steel - without the special corrosion protection that newer tanks have. And some soils in Utah are especially alkaline and corrosive - such as around St. George, where Ellis said several gasoline leaks were reported last year.
Also, the older a tank is, the better the chance that it has time to corrode and start leaking.
For such reasons, Ellis said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, when it began setting up guidelines for underground storage tanks, estimated that 35 percent of existing tanks leaked. It later lowered that to 10 percent, then later said it really wasn't sure, Ellis said.
But even if only 2 percent of the tanks in Utah leak, that's more than 400 leaks.
Ellis' new bureau wasn't really expected to take corrective action against such leaks this year, and even had no legal authority to do so until last summer. Its few workers were supposed to be designing a program for inspection and maintenance of tanks.
But it has had so many calls about so many leaks that are too large and expensive for local governments to handle that it has been scrambling to investigate leaks and work with the federal government to clean them up.
"We used to get a call every other week about a new leak. Then we got a call every week. Now we're getting two a week. People know we're here, and we have to do what we can," Ellis said.
Examples of some of the leaks investigated, besides the one at Moab, include:
Customers at a Ben Franklin store in St. George complained last year of gasoline odors as they entered the store, and some workers complained of headaches and nausea. Investigations determined the fumes were coming from a floor drain in the basement, apparently from an underground gas spill from tanks at one of several nearby gasoline stations.
A Vernal businessman reported a tank likely leaked because it fills with water when the water table is high, and loses gasoline when the water table is low. When a telephone company dug a hole for a pole nearby, the resulting gasoline fumes were so strong that the crew had to stop. Also, the PVC waterline for a nearby tool company passes through the contaminated area.
Chevron, which has developed a program to systematically upgrade its underground tanks, invited state officials to watch how it "closes out" old gas stations by watching how one at North Temple and Redwood Road in Salt Lake City was dismantled. Ellis said officials were expecting to see that the tank there was in good shape, but instead "it had leaked and the whole place was hot as a firecracker." Chevron is cleaning up the gasoline-contaminated soil in the area.
Ellis said his office works with gasoline companies and the EPA with its federal Leaking Underground Storage Tank Trust Fund to clean up such problems when found.
It recently applied for a $394,000 trust grant to clean up some of the spills in the state.
But Ellis said his new program will try to prevent leaks in the first place or correct them before they become too troublesome.
A first step was requiring tank owners to notify the state of the number, age and size of their tanks. About 10,500 tanks have been registered so far, which state officials think is only about half the tanks in the state.
Owners must pay a $25-per-tank fee to help fund inspection and maintenance programs that Ellis expects will be required by the EPA as it releases final regulations about underground tanks, probably in October.
EPA proposals for those regulations include requiring tanks to be periodically tested for leaks. That is done by filling the tanks and measuring how much fluid escapes over the next few hours. Ellis expects that the EPA will require repairs for leaks of more than about a cup per hour.
Those tests will likely be conducted by certified private companies and could be somewhat expensive - $300 to $500 per tank, Ellis estimates. He said several companies are gearing up to conduct those tests, even though they have not yet been required.
Ellis also expects the EPA to require leak-detection systems to be installed on tanks within three to five years and to require that within 10 years all underground storage tanks be equipped with corrosion protection and with devices to prevent spills or overfills.
The EPA is also wrestling with whether or how to require gasoline companies to carry insurance to cover the costs of cleaning up leaks. Ellis said he feels the EPA is hoping that states will set up low-cost insurance policies that small, independent gasoline station owners can afford.
If the program works as designed, the state should know within a few years exactly how good or bad the underground tanks here are. Ellis said the environment will be better protected and health threats such as those Brittney Shepardson faced should be eventually eliminated.