Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News
An underground storage tank leaked 20,000 gallons of gasoline at this Top Stop convenience store on Main Street in downtown Gunnison.

Earlier this year there were more than 100 unresolved cases of underground storage tanks, most that contained gasoline, that have leaked just in Salt Lake City. Data compiled by the Utah Department of Environmental Quality showed there were 35 open cases in Ogden, 25 in St. George and 16 in West Valley City.

Of the open cases on DEQ's list, 12 Utah cities had between six and 13 leaking tanks, eight cities had five ongoing cases, six cities had four and 21 cities had two cases. Over 40 cities and towns had at least one case of a storage tank that in some way has been or could be polluting the soil and possibly groundwater, according to the state.

"Yeah, we have a problem," said Dale Marx, branch manager of DEQ's underground storage tank program, which oversees leaks, cleanup and prevention. "Are people dying in the street? No. We've got a pretty good handle on it. Once in a while, one gets away from you."

The Utah Solid and Hazardous Waste Control Board members Thursday talked about tightening rules on underground tanks and having a proposal ready by April. DEQ's

Division of Environmental Response and Remediation director, Brad Johnson, said the new rules' goal is to prevent what's happening right now with a large leak that's being cleaned up in Gunnison, where as of Thursday crews had cleaned up about 6,800 gallons of a 20,000-gallon gasoline leak.

The board also discussed what to do about a leak that prompted a lawsuit involving Gold Cross Services Inc. and a private property owner. On June 12 board members will hold their own hearing about what to do about cleanup methods, a process neither side in the lawsuit has been able to agree on.

State records show that throughout Utah there are some 5,000 underground storage tanks. Most contain gasoline or a petroleum product.

Sometimes the tanks leak, a lot.

Apparel shop owner Lila Lee Christensen claimed earlier this year that a storage tank that leaked 20,000 gallons of gas from a Top Stop convenience store site in Gunnison ruined her business. Efforts are ongoing to clean up the plume of contamination underground while about $1 million for cleanup and investigation has been spent out of the state's LUST (leaking underground storage tank) fund, DEQ's Therron Blatter said.

"Gunnison has been this giant disaster," Blatter said on the phone. Nearly half of the monies doled out from the LUST fund during the current fiscal year has gone toward the Top Stop leak.

Christensen is also seeking damages in a pending court case against Top Stop owner Wind River Petroleum. Another lawsuit was filed this past week by businesses and residents in Gunnison against Wind River.

When asked about all of the leaking tanks in Salt Lake City, Marx said people need to be educated about what's around where they live. "Are kids playing on a trike getting sick? No," he said.

But there are incidents where a plume of contamination from a leaking tank gets into drinking water. Marx said if that happens water consumers are immediately notified, even if it means going door-to-door to tell them.

The door-to-door approach has been unfolding in Roosevelt after a resident saw what was at first thought to be leakage from a septic tank in a field near some homes. A call was made to the health department and the substance was discovered to be gasoline. The field was fenced off, all neighbors were notified, an investigation into the pollution is ongoing and cleanup is expected to begin this spring or summer, Marx said. So far, he noted, there has been no contamination found in drinking water or groundwater.

Finding the leaking tanks takes watchful residents, devices called leak detectors and "honest" owners of underground storage tanks. Marx said that these days economics, or the high price of gasoline, should be helping to keep tank owners honest and willing to report a leak toward getting the resulting contamination cleaned up, with the aid of the state's LUST fund.

But if the mess is under a building or road, there's a chance it won't ever get resolved.

"You just don't dig up freeways for a little bit of contamination," Marx said. Sometimes, he added, it's a question of whether it's worth demolishing a building to get at the pollution.

The demolition solution is not out of the question for Kay Eckardt, who is suing Gold Cross Services Inc. and others in 3rd District Court because of past petroleum seepage at about 740 W. 1700 South in Salt lake City. One of two underground tanks that Gold Cross had used until 1996 to refuel its ambulances was found to have leaked and both tanks were eventually removed, along with tons of contaminated soil.

But as Eckardt walked around his property recently, he pointed to holes in the ground covered by small metal plates that read, "monitoring well." At some point there have been about 20 wells on the site that includes his U-shaped building with its 11 tenants and the building next door, which is co-owned by his sister and, in a strange twist, Gold Cross, even though it stopped using the site altogether in 2001.

"We're actually sitting on a lake of gasoline," Eckardt said. His sister is also named as a plaintiff in the suit in which Eckardt claims the value of his property has been diminished because of the leak.

On a map produced in 2004 by Environmental Resources Management, the so-called lake looks like a large red blotch, surrounded by a larger purple smudge that both represent areas of contaminated soil. An even larger rendering of blue crosshatches depicts a groundwater plume.

An attorney for Gold Cross said his client, along with the state, has tried to work with Eckardt on finding a way to clean up everything but that Eckardt has not fully cooperated along the way.

Eckardt said he wants cleanup to occur, but without disrupting his tenants. He has even considered the idea of drilling large boreholes under his property as a means of remediation.

Although the entire impacted area is covered by concrete and asphalt and there has been no reported contamination of drinking water supplies in the mostly industrial area, Eckardt said banks won't let him borrow against his property. Additionally, lenders won't approve loans for anyone who might be interested in buying his property because of the contaminated soil and groundwater.

While the mess under Eckardt's business has been shown to still exist, it's just not as obvious as it is in Gunnison. And his lawyer, who declined comment for this story, has said in court documents that the gasoline, along with a chemical additive also present in the mix, may never be cleaned up.

Court papers say Gold Cross' tanks were removed and at least some of the mess was cleaned up. Eckardt is claiming there is still contamination under both his property and the one next door and that MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether) in the soil may never be completely remediated.

The Environmental Protection Agency describes MTBE as an additive in gasoline to increase its oxygen content toward burning more completely and reducing tailpipe emissions.

The EPA cites research that has not concluded whether inhaling MTBE poses an imminent threat to public health, although some research animals that inhaled high concentrations of MTBE did develop cancer and other health effects. Swallowing MTBE at high doses in drinking water could be a potential human carcinogen, the EPA stated.

Wherever gasoline is stored, there is the possibility that MTBE could leak into the environment and the EPA reports that there is a "growing number" of studies that indicate MTBE has been found in drinking water supplies throughout the country. Testing of wells and public supplies is available, but another way to tell if MTBE is present at higher levels in drinking water is if it tastes or smells like turpentine, according to the EPA.

Getting rid of MTBE in ground water is difficult and costly and it's more resistant to natural biodegradation, the EPA says. But it can be cleaned up with technology like soil vapor extraction, the EPA adds.

There are at least 25 states that have implemented either a complete or partial ban on the use of MTBE as a gasoline additive. The EPA did not list Utah among those states.

In the meantime, DEQ officials in charge of monitoring underground storage tanks, leaking or otherwise, have been told in a recent state audit to keep a closer eye on open cases of past leaks.

In the 1980s Congress told the EPA to come up with new rules that regulated underground storage tanks. In 1988 those rules went into effect and were applied to what was all of a sudden a "universe" of tanks, DEQ's Therron Blatter said.

Tank owners were given 10 years to upgrade existing tanks or replace them at a considerable cost. Many smaller gasoline providers opted to get out of the business, Blatter said. Larger companies replaced tanks with fiber glass units or coated steel tanks that are less resistant to corrosion.

Blatter said that in the Top Stop case in Gunnison, the tank owner elected to upgrade, which is considered a temporary fix that involves staving off corrosion. He said the human factor of not paying day-to-day attention to whether an old tank is leaking probably contributed to not finding the leak in time at the Top Stop.

Blatter said there are several hundred tanks throughout Utah that are older, possibly upgraded and at risk of leaking.

When tanks do leak, the state has its LUST fund, which gasoline providers pay into as a kind of insurance policy to help with cleanup costs, should they be needed. For fiscal year 2001, the state paid out $13.8 million in LUST monies. For fiscal years 2005-2007, the amount was in the range of $5 million to $6 million. Right now there's about $11.4 million available in the fund.

The LUST fund was created in the 1990s by the Utah Legislature for owners of buried tanks to access when a leak occurs. The state requires owners of leaking tanks to hire a consultant, clean up the mess and then apply for LUST funds as a form of reimbursement.

In the case of Gold Cross, the company has a cap of $500,000 in LUST funds it can access because it was considered to be a non-marketer of petroleum, meaning its supplies were only used by its ambulances.

Gas station owners, however, have up to $1 million in LUST funds available to them for cleanup of leaks. All gas stations are required to have money available just for cleanup, which in part comes from a small surcharge they pay the state each time they resupply their storage tanks. About 80 percent of owners in Utah participate in the LUST fund, with the rest having some form of commercial insurance, Blatter said. Tanks operated by the federal government, he noted, are covered by federal funds in event of a leak.

Blatter said if there is any money left over below the cap when LUST funds are distributed and there are 3rd party claims, that money can go toward impacted individuals or businesses. In Gunnison, that money has been used up and those affected are going after Top Stop's owner.

In Eckardt's case, the LUST funds have been dwindling. Whether he is awarded any damages from Gold Cross may be decided when his lawsuit goes to trial, which is currently scheduled for Aug. 4, a date Eckardt called a "day of reckoning."