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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The announcement that more than a third of Florida's Wal-Mart facilities are under investigation for potential violations of the state's petroleum storage tank laws has alarmed some clean-water advocates who question the state's ability to protect waterways from accidental fuel leaks.
Last week, citing a 1998 law that requires mandatory registration for most above-ground storage tanks used by gas stations, manufacturers and other services providers, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) disclosed that in as many as 75 Wal-Mart locations, the retailer appears to have failed to notify the state of their on-site fuel sources. Many Wal-Mart stores, including supercenters with oil and lube services, and smaller retail outlets with backup generators, have 500-plus-gallon storage tanks for fuel, oil or other petroleum products, The Gainesville Sun reported.
When such tanks are installed, or retrofits are made, Florida law mandates that facility owners must report their existence to state environmental inspectors. Owners also are required to prove they have the financial resources to mop up spills should one occur. But if tank owners fail to notify the state or prove financial responsibility, inspectors are never made aware of a tank's presence, and annual checkups cannot be performed. While largely paperwork omissions, the resulting loss of oversight could pose significant risks to surface and subsurface waterways if leaks occur, DEP officials said.
Linda Young, southeast regional coordinator of the Clean Water Network in Tallahassee, said that because state regulations are lax and enforcement ineffective, companies often feel there is no need to comply with inspection programs like the storage tank review. "Years go by and more and more people realize that nothing happens if they don't register," she said.
DEP officials acknowledged problems exist. "The rule states that it is the responsibility of the owner to register with the department," said Carol Carnley, a systems project analyst with the state tank section. While unregistered above-ground tanks are rare and pose a minimal threat to the environment, she said, "We can only have 100 percent coverage across the ones that we know exist."
State officials said they had yet to find evidence of past or present fuel leaks at any of the Wal-Marts in question. They refused to release their locations, however, citing pending legal concerns. Daphne Moore, a Wal-Mart community affairs manager, said her company had been made aware of the state's concerns and had taken steps to address them. "When we became aware of the issue we immediately made sure all tanks were registered," she told The Gainesville Sun.
A previous photo of a Wal-Mart store featuring a Murphy Oil gas station appearing here was removed because the fuel operations in question are in no way affiliated with Murphy Oil Corp.