Thursday, April 30, 2009
End of leaking tanks cleanup could threaten water
Florida's cleanup program for protecting groundwater from leaking underground tanks at gas stations will effectively end under a budget agreement between House and Senate leaders, Sen. Carey Baker said today.
Florida collects an 80 cents-per-barrel tax on petroleum imported into the state to help pay for cleaning up soil and groundwater that poses a threat to drinking water supplies. There were 17,783 cleanup sites in 2008, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
More than $100 million a year has been collected for the program since 2000. But legislative leaders on Thursday proposed reducing the program in fiscal 2009-10 to $10 million, which House and Senate members said would deal a serious blow to the program.
"This is going to have a detrimental effect to the state," said Baker, R-Eustis and a budget conference committee chairman. "We will not be able to do cleanup this year like we have in the past."
Asked by a House member whether eliminating the program will significantly impact drinking water quality, DEP representative Jennifer Fitzwater said, "Yes, I think that is a fair statement."
House and Senate leaders have been trying to address a $6 billion revenue shortfall in the proposed 2008-09 budget. Baker said the decision to take money from the Inland Protection Trust Fund was made by the House and Senate leaders and their budget chairmen.
The more than $130 million swept from the trust fund won't be spent in 2009-10, Baker said. Instead, he said the money will be transferred to a "rainy day" fund to be used for general government only if needed.
Baker and industry groups said the move could cause petroleum clean-up firms to go out of business and they won't be available if the program resumes when the economy gets better.
"It could be the worst environmental policy decision made in the last 20 years from my clients' perspective," said Phil Leary, a representative of the Florida Groundwater Association, which includes firms that drill monitoring wells at contamination sites.
Small service station owners who are required to replace their gasoline tanks by the end of the year with double-walled tanks to prevent future leaks are unable to borrow money from banks because the program is in jeopardy, said Jim Smith, president of the Florida Petroleum Marketers & Convenience Store Association.
Of the 17,783 cleanup sites, 3,957 were undergoing cleanup last year and another 8,209 were awaiting cleanup, according to DEP. Keeping $10 million in the program would allow for only an emergency clean-up if one is needed, Baker said.
Rep. Ralph Poppell, chairman of the House Natural Resources Appropriations Committee, said the state could have borrowed $200 million to pay for the program next year. But he said that would have cost the state more than $150 million in interest and put the state's bond rating at risk, increasing the state's cost to borrow money in the future.
"If we bond it for another year all we're doing is adding to the already existing problem," said Poppell, R-Vero Beach.
"We hear you," he told senators and representatives. "We are with you. We understand this is painful."
Story and photo copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and FloridaEnvironments.com. Please do not redistribute without permission.