By the Numbers
Amount of money this year that funds 4,300 active gasoline leak cleanup projects.
Number of identified leak sites that are awaiting cleanup. There are still 3,675 sites ineligible for state funding.
Number of gasoline leaks of 25 gallons or more in Florida since 1980.
Number of uncleaned gasoline leaks in Florida, more than any other state. There are 130,000 uncleaned sites in the United States.
Number of private wells in Volusia and Flagler counties where poisons have been discovered at or exceeding allowable levels.
SOURCES: Sierra Club, Florida departments of Environmental Protection and Health
What Lies Beneath
Thousands of Florida wells are contaminated by gasoline,
threatening water supplies and raising concerns about public health
Originally published in The Daytona Beach News-Journal on July 10, 2005
Two decades after a leaking gasoline storage tank 50 yards from her home brought TV reporters to her doorstep, Effie Santucci still drinks, bathes, washes dishes and cares for her pets with bottled water.
The media attention has faded, but the 69-year-old DeLeon Springs resident still doesn't dare drink water from her faucet. Her husband died of cancer, two neighbors have died of cancer, and neither she nor the experts know whether contaminated water contributed to their deaths.
An underground pool of pure gasoline floats atop groundwater near Santucci's home despite 18 years of state cleanup efforts costing $1.5 million.
Thousands of gas station sites throughout Florida and hundreds in Volusia and Flagler counties share a problem that isn't soon going away: gasoline discharges trapped in the ground, leaching cancer-causing chemicals that are extremely difficult to remove.
In 20 years, the state has spent $2.3 billion on cleanup strategies that often haven't worked.
Old, steel gas station tanks, easily corroded in porous sandy soils, faithfully serviced generations of Florida motorists but paid no respect to the water supply vital to the state's growing population.
Now, gasoline pools expand under neighborhoods where residents still drink water from wells. The problem will almost certainly grow as new leaks are discovered when property owners replace underground tanks on a massive scale to meet a 2009 deadline.
If history is a guide, cleanup won't be able to keep up. At Santucci's DeLeon Springs site, after years of pumping and treating contaminated water, engineers bailed pure gasoline out of the ground in March. They hauled it out in a 55-gallon drum.
Long after the discharge was discovered, water in monitoring wells on her property continues to test positive for petroleum contaminants, and traces of contaminants have shown up in Santucci's drinking well, though at levels considered safe for consumption, according to reports submitted to the state.
Residents who have lived around leak sites for years, even decades, would like to know whether their health is at risk. Whenever someone living near them gets cancer or dies at a young age, neighbors wonder whether to trust state health officials' assurances that toxin levels detected in their drinking wells aren't high enough to hurt them.
Not far from an old gas station site in the village of Enterprise, quarterly tests of Mary DeMarco's drinking wells have always tested negative for excessive toxins. Yet, high levels of benzene, a cancer-causing gasoline byproduct, have been discovered at two homes across the street since 1998. A resident of one of those homes died of brain cancer two years after the discovery, though there's no evidence linking the toxin to the disease.
Sometimes, when DeMarco waters her garden, she can see rainbows in the puddles.
DeMarco, a smoker, has recently been diagnosed with cancer for the third time.
Some studies suggest the toxins in gasoline may affect heavy smokers and drinkers more than others.
To what degree is anyone's guess.
Despite huge public investments in leak detection and cleanup, scientists and health officials say they are unaware of any publicly funded tracking study of the health of people who, for years, drank water contaminated with petroleum.
FLORIDA RANKS NO. 1 IN UNCLEANED SPILL SITES
"Burying metal in the ground in Florida was probably not the brightest thing we did," says Steve Kintner, director of Volusia County's Department of Environmental Management, which oversees petroleum cleanup locally under contract with the state.
The state's massive program, funded this year at $170 million by taxes paid at the gas pump, began in the mid-1980s after residents of the Marion County town of Bellevue discovered they couldn't drink their water. Petroleum from a nearby gasoline storage tank had leaked into their well field.
Evidence quickly mounted that steel gas station tanks throughout Florida had been hemorrhaging petroleum for decades.
Today the state oversees 4,300 active cleanup projects. Nearly 4,500 state-funded projects have been completed, and another 9,340 sites await cleanup and funding. Still another 3,675 sites are ineligible for state funding because they aren't deemed as serious a threat to water supply wells, lakes or rivers.
Florida's petroleum discharge cleanup program is one of the most aggressive in the nation, state officials say. But environmentalists take a different view.
A report released in April by the Sierra Club, calling leaking tanks "a grave threat" to the nation's water supply, found that Florida has the largest number of uncleaned discharges in the nation -17,544 -representing 13.5 percent of the 130,000 uncleaned sites in the United States.
In addition, Florida tallies the lowest percentage of cleaned sites -31 percent -in the nation, the report said.
The study's author, Grant Cope, an attorney involved in toxic cleanup issues for eight years, charges that while Florida has been vigorous in requiring property owners to report discharges, the state has failed to properly fund cleanup efforts.
"It is absolutely essential that states do everything they can to protect drinking water supplies from contamination from known carcinogens," Cope said.
The problem is critical for the state because nine of 10 Floridians get their drinking water directly from the ground, he said.
Mike Ashley, chief of the state's Bureau of Petroleum Storage Systems, takes issue with the Sierra Club report's criticisms, saying he disagrees with its "numbers." He declined to be more specific.
"Our program is nationally recognized and used as the standard and model for other states," he said, adding no one at the Sierra Club contacted him for information before releasing the report.
Active cleanup efforts are under way at 200 sites in Volusia and Flagler counties, out of 380 reported discharge sites throughout the two-county area.
Since 1988, poisons have been discovered in 344 private wells in the two-county area, according to state Department of Health data.
'AN INEXACT SCIENCE' HAMPERED BY INEFFICIENCY
With high water tables, shallow aquifers and porous sandy soil, Florida is uniquely threatened by gasoline contamination. The state boasts some of the nation's strictest cleanup laws and one of its strongest cleanup funding commitments, says Ashley.
At a February conference attended by gas station owners and cleanup contractors in Orlando, Ashley described the department's rapid response when petroleum-based toxins were discovered threatening public water supplies in various Florida communities.
"We have the ability, at will, to jump on any crisis in the state" by sending workers "in a matter of hours," he said. "When we get word somebody smells petroleum in a building, we are on it. When we get word someone is tasting petroleum in their drinking water, we are on it."
He spoke of state officials' alarm, in 1998, when residents in Enterprise reported tasting gas in their drinking water. Tests showed 200 times the allowable levels of benzene and 100 times the allowable levels of total xylenes, suspected to cause damage to the reproductive, immune and respiratory systems. Engineers determined the residents had been drinking the water for "quite some time" before they could taste it.
"But we couldn't find the source," Ashley said, adding the sense of emergency was heightened because nearby Enterprise Elementary School and All Saints Episcopal Preschool drew drinking water from wells.
"Thank God (the underground contamination) was going the other way," he said. "Children can't absorb the same (contaminant) levels as adults."
But while the contamination was moving away from the schools, it was moving toward homes. Citing potential for well contamination, engineers recommended in 2002 that the neighborhood be placed on city waterlines. That has not yet been done, nor has a system been installed to begin removing contaminants near the site.
Ashley acknowledged the job's not easy, and cleanup officials have been forced to learn as they go.
"The problem is we have 4,300 separate assembly lines operating at the same time, each using a different set of Lego blocks," Ashley says.
Contamination cleanup is "an inexact science," he said.
"Sometimes it doesn't work, even if we've done it 10 times before with similar technology and geology. There's art and luck involved in this."
Two to three years ago, the bureau reviewed costs and effectiveness of cleanup systems around the state. The results -including data indicating many systems operated only "every other day" -"stunned us," Ashley said.
"It was 50 percent our fault because our operating guidelines mandated the least expensive alternative," he said.
Those guidelines were a reaction to earlier revelations that the program owed contractors nearly half a billion dollars for unapproved work.
Many contractors had chosen to tackle the easy jobs first, because they knew the bureau was paying claims on a first-come, first-served basis with few questions asked. Through 1995, more than half of all cleanup funds had gone to low-priority projects.
Auditors found ripoffs, according to Gabor Matrai, who worked for a private environmental services contractor before taking charge of Volusia County's petroleum storage tank-cleanup program. But the state took the brunt of the criticism, as reports blasted officials for failing to verify that funded work was legal, completed or even necessary.
The bureau suspended all ongoing cleanup jobs while it paid off the backlog and began scrutinizing new proposals much more closely, as investigations stretched into years.
Cost-cutting reforms came with an admission that not all contamination pools were equally dire.
"The amount of petroleum in the ground is not what's relevant," Ashley says. "It's the proximity to drinking water. That's what's relevant. There are places we know have big plumes, but everyone's on city water. Unless they dig down 20 feet, there are no health risks."
Cope, author of the Sierra Club's report on nationwide cleanup efforts, disagrees that many 20-year-old plumes pose no health risks.
Florida's limestone and karst aquifer system, he said, is "extremely vulnerable" to spreading contamination. Clay layers can be uneven and provide porous routes to the aquifer that geologists have no way of knowing about.
CLEANUP RULES NOW TOUGHER, BUT NEW LEAKS ON THE WAY
Today, state officials say they're focusing harder on the goal of getting poisons out of the ground.
Site assessments that once took years now take months.
More contracts include pay-for-performance clauses, with payment tied to achieving goals rather than length of operation.
"Before, a lot of systems were running but weren't doing anything," says Ashley of the state's Bureau of Petroleum Storage Systems. "Now they have to run 80 percent of the time and clean up the site."
The bureau conducts surprise inspections to make sure systems are running when contractors say they're running.
Fixed prices have been established for common tasks like drilling and lab analysis, ending long negotiations.
And tougher, more aggressive cleanup strategies are being embraced.
"We said, 'Why not get more aggressive, spend a little more money and get it done right?' " Ashley says.
Other challenges lie ahead.
Discharges that occurred after 1998 aren't eligible for state funding in most cases. By then, the state expected gas station owners to have obtained private insurance to fund cleanups. More than 20 ineligible sites await cleanup in Volusia County, and compelling property owners at those sites to spend money to comply with the law "is like pulling teeth," says Matrai at the county.
The state's disciplinary process for noncompliant owners is long and cumbersome, and officials are reluctant to take property owners to court, he says.
Often, Matrai says, contractors working on sites eligible for state funding propose elaborate cleanup systems and extensive testing, while contractors working on jobs funded by property owners propose cleanup on the cheap.
Many property owners "cooperate only when there's some real estate transaction involved" because potential purchasers and lenders shy away from properties that aren't complying with cleanup requirements, he says.
But gas station owners often finance their own property sales, and, in those cases, there's little leverage to force owners to clean their property, Matrai says. Prospective buyers of old gas station sites are urged to spend money on a thorough site assessment, even if they don't plan to sell gas at the property. New owners can become financially liable, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars, for newly discovered leaks from old forgotten tanks.
The number of new discharges is expected to increase each year -the state's Ashley has no idea by how many -as property owners rush to comply with a 2009 state deadline to install new virtually leak-proof double-walled tanks. So far, only 40 percent of some 30,000 underground tanks have been replaced as required.
As old tanks are removed, leaks will be discovered in hulls and lines that will have to be cleaned up.
Many owners, including those Ashley calls "new Americans," often Asian immigrants, have no idea what's in store for them by 2009.
"Knowing who the owners are, it's sad," Matrai says.
In addition, state tank inspectors are required to monitor new tank installations, reducing the number of inspectors available to inspect existing systems, Ashley says.
Still, cleanup officials say they foresee a day when all underground discharge sites are fully restored to the way they were before gas stations were built on them.
When will it happen?
"Certainly within a lifetime," Kintner says.
He declines to specify whose lifetime.
Copyright, 2005, The News-Journal Corporation