Farmers who maintain storage facilities for diesel fuel, gasoline or other petroleum products are facing a deadline of May 10 to have a written plan in place for handling a spill, the latest deadline in ongoing regulations designed to make sure spills of petroleum products do not contaminate waterways.
"We have tried very hard to get EPA to exempt agriculture from this regulation or at least to increase the volume of storage to a level where it will not affect most farmers and ranchers, but the effort has not been successful," says Steve Swaffar, who is working as interim government affairs director for the Kansas Farm Bureau.
Swaffar says that regulations have been in place for years requiring some kind of containment barrier around storage tanks that contain fuel and other petroleum products, such as motor oil, hydraulic fluids or lubricants.
"What is new is the requirement that every operator have a written plan for how a spill will be contained and cleaned up to prevent it from entering U.S. waters," he says. "It was originally set to take effect three years ago but EPA delayed implementation. Now, it looks like if you don't have a plan in place by May 10, you are going to be subject to civil penalties."
The plan must spell out what products are stored, what the volume of each tank is, what kind of containment is in place and what action will be taken if there is a spill. It also requires that farm employees be trained about handling a spill and disposing of the waste product, any contaminated absorbent materials used and any contaminated soil.
"There is an exception to the regulation if you can prove there is no way that a spill from your tank could ever, under any circumstances hit waters of the U.S.," he says. "But the bar has been set very high on that proof and it is my opinion that most people would not be able to get there."
He says the regulations are a "hassle" for farmers because they aren't simply storing petroleum products in the way that the tank farms attached to pump jacks store oil.
"These are facilities that are being used, that you have to move vehicles and equipment up to for fueling," he says. "It requires that you have some way to drive through the containment structure or a delivery system that goes over it or through it somehow. It isn't exactly an easy engineering feat to put a gate in a berm."
Another issue involves farm shops, which often have 55-gallon drums of hydraulic fluid or oil on hand because those products are less expensive to buy in bulk.
"Now, you have to figure out how to have some kind of containment system in the shop," he says. "It's a hassle and it's expensive."
The simplest solution may be double-walled tanks, but they are currently hard to find and the price has doubled in recent weeks as it has become apparent the rule will go into effect.
"If you are building new fuel storage, then a double-walled tank is an obvious solution," he says. "Retrofitting is another thing altogether. And many of the units are way too large for the average farm user."
Many farmers say the record-keeping alone places an undue burden on their resources.
"They are right to an extent," Swaffar says. "It is a regulation that was never intended for the kind of storage that farmers have. It was aimed an oil and gas company tank farms and bigger fuel handling facilities. That's why we tried for the ag exemption. But at the same time, if there were an ag exemption, I can see where the oil and gas operator might say their tank farm is on agricultural land and therefore is exempt and you'd be seeing an ongoing situation."
He says he dislikes the fact that the regulation is not risk-based and simply puts a blanket rule into place for every operator.
"I'd like it better if there was a risk analysis that looked at how likely a spill is and what the chances of it being a problem are. If you are 200 feet from a road ditch or creek, then it's a bigger issue than if you are out in the middle of nowhere where it is five miles to the nearest road ditch and there are no streams," Swaffar says.
At the same time, most larger farms have already put containment structures in place to meet long-standing requirements.
"All those operators are facing is the deadline for getting a written plan in place on how they would handle a spill and documenting their inspection of facilities and equipment to make sure they are in good shape," Swaffer says. "That is a hassle and nobody wants to spend their time doing it. But I just remind them that being out of compliance means facing a fine. And if you are out of compliance and you have a spill, then you have a public relations problem as well as a fine."
– Griekspoor is editor of sister publication Kansas Farmer