VAN ZANDT, Whatcom County – For 49 years, Jeff Margolis and his late wife, Amy, ran Everybody’s Store, a gas station and sandwich shop in this community east of Bellingham. They never made much money on the store, nestled in the Nooksack Valley below Mount Baker, but maintained the trading post out of a lingering belief in building social capital.
“We ran this business out of love,” Margolis, 80, said of the trucks on the nearby Valley Highway.
The store is closed now, closed in 2019, and Amy passed away. A for sale sign hangs over the empty building.
Margolis would like to get rid of the bark of his old business, but there is a problem: the dirt underneath is considered contaminated and needs to be cleaned up. Several large underground gasoline storage tanks dating from the 1930s were on the property when Margolis purchased it. When he replaced them in 1997, they had holes in them. The state gutted the property at the time, but in 2017, citing remnants of contamination, called off the health check as Margolis shut down its gas pumps.
Now, at a time when he hoped he’d left the store, the blame for contamination and a potential million-dollar cleanup falls on him.
“It’s just debilitating because it undermines my ability to profit from the place because the buyer has to worry about liability,” he said. “I don’t even dare to give it to one of my daughters for fear that she will put a bill.”
As Washington state looks to a more electric future, it could also end up with a gas-powered past. The average age of Washington’s nearly 10,000 underground fuel storage tanks currently in use by gas stations and others is 28 years, according to Department of Ecology data – just two years before the expiration of most warranties on tanks and where many believe they are particularly vulnerable to leaking. Some of these tanks have been upgraded since their original installation, but even these upgrades are on average 25 years old.
Although the leaking tanks have not led to reports of catastrophic contamination, conservationists feel that the crumbling gas stations, combined with the many abandoned or forgotten sites, are causing injuries by a thousand cuts . The state legislature calls them a “serious threat to human health and the environment.”
Already, nearly 2,500 known sites need cleaning up in Washington, including many old ones. or forgotten gas stations. Underground reservoirs are linked to about half of the state’s contaminated sites. Together, the state faces a pixelated map of thousands of small environmental cleanups — a costly burden that can fall on owners and operators who can’t afford them.
Regulations in Washington have become stricter in recent years and state funds are available. But Mark Dunec, real estate consultant at FTI Consulting, said the scale of the problem across the country demands wider recognition from government and the private sector.
“Everyone is an ostrich,” he said. “Everyone ignores, ignores and then they’re going to have to deal with it. It is avoidance. The more they avoid, the more it will cost on the road.
30 year window
Over the past five years, Ryan Bixby, chief executive of Sound Earth, has inspected at least 100 gas stations in Washington.
“Anecdotally, the 30-year window is a good estimate of the lifespan of many reservoir systems,” he said. In Maine, state law dictates that tanks must be upgraded or retired at 30 years. Although the tank itself is still in working order, the piping and fittings around it often fail, he said.
The wave of aging tank systems in Washington and across the country was the product of regulatory reforms in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Spurred by television coverage of leaking storage tanks, the U.S. Agency for Environmental Protection issued new regulations in 1988, requiring them to be updated or replaced to prevent spills.
Between 1988 and 1997, Washington saw a rush to install new tanks, leading to a 1998 EPA order that all tanks be upgraded or permanently closed. Since then, however, tank replacements have slowed, according to data from the Department of Ecology.
A 2015 report comparing eight states found Washington’s tanks were the oldest, nearly six years older than Vermont’s. At the same time, the state’s soggy conditions tend to accelerate the decline of tanks.
The state’s pollution liability insurance agency found in 2015 that more than 2,500 operational storage tanks were within a mile of a water well known to be highly susceptible to contamination. Unlike the 1980s, there have been no recent reports of poisoned water. But the prospect of fuel leaking into groundwater is concerning enough for the state that it has some of the strictest cleanup laws in the country. Contaminated soil can take years to clean up and gasoline fumes are known to have negative health effects.
Gas station owners not affiliated with a major retailer could face a million-dollar cleanup.
“A lot of gas station owners don’t make huge profits, so it can be very difficult for them to afford to clean up their site,” said Cassandra Garcia, deputy director of PLIA. “Banks aren’t usually very keen on lending people money for something that’s contaminated.”
That can cause owners to look away.
“A lot of small gas stations may not want to inquire about the condition of their property because once they do, they’ll have to do something,” Seattle attorney Ken Lederman said. specializing in contaminated properties.
PLIA launched a loan and grant program to help replace aging tanks, clean up contamination, and convert gas stations to electric charging stops in 2015, and received a $10 million budget from the legislature in 2017.
It’s a small start.
Staff have completed planning assessments for 67 sites, 13 of which are ongoing, funding seven cleanup sites so far. Since 2020, however, the program has not accepted any new applications as it operates on its current record amid COVID-related downturns.
“It’s like a teaspoon in the ocean,” Garcia said. But, “even if that’s it, a teaspoon is going to be clean.”
Electric vehicle push
The state’s aging gas infrastructure is hanging over the pressure to switch to electric vehicles. Washington recently approved a plan to phase out sales of new gas-powered cars by 2030.
Dunec says the result will be a dramatic reduction in demand for gas stations.
“In 2018 I took a bold stance and said that by 2030 half the gas stations will be obsolete and I laughed at the coin,” he said. He sticks to this prediction. “I really believe it’s going to happen very quickly.”
In parts of the state where demand for land is high, private developers are often willing to take on the cleanup task. Moreover, when a contaminated site is discovered, the oil companies are frequently obliged to sign the check to take care of it.
But in places like Van Zandt, where Margolis lives, historic or aging gas stations could leave a heavy toll.
Matthew Metz, executive director of Coltura, an environmental advocacy group, is pushing the state to limit or even ban new gas stations, shut down any leaky stations, and force owners to pay for their cleaning. “Working to get out of this is going to be really painful,” said Metz, who also pressed the state to pass the phase-out of gas-powered cars in 2030.
Tank technology and regulation improved, with more sophisticated leak detection to prevent the water poisonings of the late 1980s. In 2018, the state legislature passed new rules governing underground storage tanks, which the Department of Ecology said limited the number and severity of new leaks.
But tackling the contamination is more complicated than many realize, involving years of surveillance and tracking.
When Sea Mar Community Health Centers was developing their property in South Park, they discovered that the site had once been a gas station. Staff thought it would be a limited cleanup, said Michael Leong, Sea Mar’s senior vice president of business and legal affairs. But the deeper they dug, the more they found. “It was like an endless chasm,” Leong said.
Sea Mar hired a company to help them locate the last owner of the old gas station, but only found one surviving family member and they were unable to find their way. engage in a cleanup effort. The final cost was “north of a million dollars,” Leong said. It took almost six years for Sea Mar to get the green light from Ecology.
The process was so cumbersome, Leong said, that Sea Mar has since reformed its process for vetting new properties.
In Margolis and Sea Mar, some see a glimpse of the future – a former gas station owner on a contaminated site and the headaches downstream of leaving aging tanks behind.
Dunec, the property consultant, said the government needed to play a bigger role. “At the end of the day, you need an active government that says this is what we need to do to move forward,” he said. “There has to be regulation to do this properly.”
“It’s been leaking for generations,” he said. “And for generations, there was no control. Now, the government has realized that there should be oversight, but yet it makes sure that whoever was there, who inherited it, has all the responsibility for cleaning everything up.