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    Getting Defensive About Tanks

    Louisiana retailers who attend classes get reduction in fines for underground leaks.

    BATON ROUGE, La. -- The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality began offering a one-time reduction in fines for those who attend a four-hour class on how to manage underground tanks, reported the Lousiana-based newspaper The Advocate. The classes are part of a new expedited penalty program called the XP program.

    Many small-business owners receive notices and fines because they don't know how to do leak-detection tests, the environmental regulations associated with testing or about the paperwork required for underground storage tanks.

    "It's like defensive driving school when you get a ticket," said Sam Broussard, an environmental scientist with the DEQ in the Lafayette regional office.

    The number who attend the Underground Storage Tank Compliance School classes varies from the five who showed up in Alexandria in May to the 60 who attended the recent class in Baton Rouge.

    "I hope to learn some things about why the storage tanks are so important and why they're so strict about this with the rules and regulations," said Ricky Crain of Bogalusa, La., who is in the convenience store business and attended the class in Baton Rouge.

    Broussard said that finding leaks from underground tanks is important because "you can contaminate a lot of groundwater with a little storage tank [leak]."

    He said businesses or other organizations with underground tanks must test monthly -- and do the tests correctly -- to comply with the law.

    Doing the monthly tests won't prevent a leak from occurring, Broussard said, but it will help the business owners and regulatory agencies to learn about the problem more quickly. "It's a way to head off the problem," he said.

    Through the XP program, businesses can possibly get a reduced fine, Broussard said. If a business owner doesn't participate, he said, DEQ can move forward with a more traditional fine.

    The fines vary widely depending on how long the tank has been leaking, how much of a problem it has caused and other factors. A fine might be as high as $32,500 per day per violation.

    Hal Leggett, assistant secretary of environmental compliance for DEQ, said that if someone attends the class and then gets a fine, it's possible they could still use the XP program, but it would depend on whether the violation was an "honest mistake" or if it was something they should have done -- but didn't.

    In either case, DEQ staff would have leeway in deciding how to proceed, he said.

    "I think we'll see a lot of XP actions over the next year or two," Leggett said.

    After that, Leggett said he hopes the number of penalties decreases, "but unfortunately, I believe we'll start seeing some repeat offenders."

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