County-owned fuel tanks too old? County Commissioner calling for costly change, saying ‘it’s an environmental hazard’

Tank expert says, ‘It doesn’t raise an eyebrow’

Here's what KPRC 2 Investigates have learned

HOUSTON – Harris County has several above and below-ground petroleum tanks that are too old, according to a recent county report that identified nearly 40 storage tanks over 30 years old.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia says he wants the “archaic” tanks to be replaced or removed. The tanks operate similar to a gas station and help keep the county’s fleet fueled. The commissioner believes the older tanks pose a danger.

“It is something that is concerning because these things, now based on their life, could spring a leak at any given time creating danger to my staff and to the community,” Garcia said. “It’s an environmental hazard and that is the way we should be looking at it.”

The Auditor’s Office presented the results of a nearly $340,000 report on the fuel tanks on April 6. It was produced by an outside consultant according to the county and cites a 2011 Yale University report stating, “Most Underground Storage Tanks (UST) have a life expectancy of 30 years.”

KPRC 2 Investigates spoke with tank experts who said the life expectancy, in reality, is a number attributed to most manufacturers’ warranties. Frank Grebas, a tank expert with Protanic, the nation’s oldest underground storage testing company, said tanks have a lifespan that can last decades if they are properly maintained.

“It doesn’t raise an eyebrow for me, ”Grebas said when presented with the number of tanks over the age of 30. “I wouldn’t be amazed to hear that there are tanks 30 years old (or more) at a site.”

Garcia acknowledges there have been no significant environmental accidents or leaks involving these tanks, but he still has concerns.

“No one ever thought that a place like ITC could go up in flames the way it did. I’m not going to wait to be (a) national headline for another major disaster,” said Garcia.

The commissioner’s plan for replacing the tanks is to “start with the worst” tanks before moving on to others.

The county tells KPRC 2 that it could cost millions of dollars to remove and replace all of the tanks.

Don Love, a veteran corrosion engineer believes the replacement of all the old tanks may potentially be a waste of tax dollars. Love believes a case-by-case approach is better.

“If someone has a concern about one specific location, let’s look at it. Let’s address it,” said Love.

The tanks over 30 years old identified in the report are all across Harris county, with many in Precinct 2, according to the audit. A total of eight tanks are over 40, including five that remain active. The remaining 34 are more than 30 years old.

KPRC 2 also identified 14 tanks that are located in or near parks and playgrounds, a fact the county did not highlight.

The red dots in the map below show tank locations compared to parks across the area.

“We should have thought about it. We didn’t. We recognize that,” Garcia said.

TCEQ code only requires petroleum tanks to be at least 3 feet away from any buildings or structures. This means tanks next to a playground or ballfield are fair game.

The county said the last survey of petroleum storage tanks was conducted in 1989. However, this does not translate to county tanks not being monitored. According to the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality (TCEQ), owners and operators of the tanks must test the systems that deter tanks from rusting every three to six months. The commission says operations inspections for review should happen every 60 days.

KPRC 2 Investigates cross-checked the county’s sites with the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality and found only one enforcement case within the last 10 years. TCEQ said a Hockley refueling facility was not properly monitored.

Garcia plans to include the removals or replacement of tanks as part of an agenda item during an upcoming meeting of Harris County Commissioner’s Court.

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