What Are USTs and How are They Regulated?

underground storage tanks

Underground fuel tanks and other regulated USTs are an important part of our economy. They also have the potential to be dangerous when owners and operators are not trained properly. Because a UST is underground, any leaks, spills, or overfills of hazardous substances can easily contaminate soil or the groundwater half of Americans rely on. The fumes or vapors from leaked petroleum can also cause fires or explosions. And the nature of underground storage tanks means that it's easy to miss one of these "releases" without monitoring. For all of these reasons, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates the underground storage tanks at the highest risk for damaging human health and property.

What is a UST?

The EPA defines an underground storage tank (UST) as a tank (or combination of tanks, plus any connected underground piping) that has at least 10% of its combined volume underground. The "tank system" includes the tank, underground connected piping, underground ancillary equipment, and the containment system. Not all UST systems are regulated under federal law. A UST is only subject to federal regulations if it contains petroleum or hazardous substances as identified under CERLA, like methane and solvents. Federal underground storage tank regulations also do not apply to:

  • Farm or residential tanks with a capacity of 1100 gallons or less that hold motor fuel used for non-commercial purposes
  • Tanks that store heating oil used on the premises where it's stored
  • Tanks on or above the floor of underground areas (ie, basements or tunnels)
  • Septic tanks and systems for collecting stormwater or wastewater
  • Flow-through process tanks
  • Tanks with a capacity of 110 gallons or less
  • Emergency spill and overfill tanks

However, states have their own definitions, regulations, and exemptions. If your UST is exempt from federal regulation, it may still be subject to state or territorial law.

How are Underground Storage Tanks Regulated?

In the 1980s, the U.S. Congress passed a series of laws, found in 40 CFR 280, to address the problem of leaking underground storage tanks. At the time, USTs were made of bare steel that tended to corrode over time, leading to environmental contamination. The original regulations required UST owners/operators to add spill, overfill, and release detection equipment to their tanks. However, there were no requirements for the equipment to be inspected. In 2015, the regulations were revised with requirements for operation, maintenance, and training. UST operators were given until late 2018 to meet the new requirements. The federal UST program is managed by the EPA, but they only have direct responsibility for underground storage tanks in Indian Country. Everywhere else, the federal UST program is implemented by the state or territorial government where the tank is located. Two U.S. territories and 38 states have something called State Plan Approval from the EPA. This means that state law is at least as stringent as federal regulations and the EPA allows them to operate the state UST program in place of the federal program. Having one set of rules simplifies enforcement. In the jurisdictions without State Plan Approval, there are two sets of regulations and the EPA works with state officials to coordinate UST enforcement. The state acts as the primary implementing agency.

Federal Requirements for Underground Storage Tank Systems

Federal underground storage tank regulations set standards for several things: the equipment itself, its operation and maintenance, record-keeping and reporting requirements, and an obligation to take financial responsibility for UST-related problems. We'll go into detail on each of these areas below, but remember, these are federal requirements. Your state or territorial regulations may be different.

Technical Requirements for Underground Storage Tank Systems

The technical requirements for federally regulated UST systems are extensive. Tanks must meet certain requirements for spill and overfill prevention, corrosion protection, release detection, secondary containment, and material compatibility. Many of the exact specifications vary based on the size of the tank or deliveries, the age of the UST system or its components, and the type of substance, as well as other factors.

UST Inspection, Operation, and Maintenance

Federal regulations require UST operators to conduct regular inspections of underground storage tank systems – either themselves or by hiring a third party. The EPA sets a schedule for the inspection of different components. For example, you should inspect:

  • spill prevention and release detection equipment every 30 days
  • containment sumps and hand-held release detection equipment once a year
  • spill buckets and overfill prevention equipment every three years

There are also specific guidelines dictating operation, maintenance, and repair for UST systems, like:

  • what to do before, during, and after a UST is filled
  • what monitoring measures you have to take and how often
  • how to investigate and respond to a UST release
  • when you can repair equipment and when you have to replace it
  • what inspection and testing measures have to be performed after repair or replacement
  • your responsibilities before, during, and after a UST closure

To ensure that all of these guidelines are followed correctly, facilities must have trained and designated UST operators. UST operators are classified according to their level of responsibility:

  • Class A operators have primary responsibility for operating and maintaining the UST system according to UST regulations. They need to have a general knowledge of the regulations that apply to them.
  • Class B operators have day-to-day responsibility for implementing UST regulations. They need to understand the operation and maintenance requirements for UST systems.
  • Class C operators are responsible for the immediate response to a problem at a UST facility. These are employees like gas station attendants, who need to know how to respond to an alarm or emergency.

One person can fill multiple roles, as long as they have the training to fulfill their responsibilities.

Financial Responsibility for USTs

UST operators have to demonstrate the financial ability to clean up their site, correct environmental damage, and compensate third parties if a release does occur. There are a few ways to do this:

  • Get insurance coverage
  • Demonstrate self-insurance through corporate guarantees, surety bonds, or letters of credit
  • Put the required amount of money into an independently administered trust fund
  • Rely on coverage provided by a state financial assurance fund

The amount of financial coverage depends on the type and size of your business.

Reporting and Record-Keeping Related to Underground Storage Tanks

Federal regulations require you to report certain changes in Underground Storage Tank use to your implementing agency, like bringing a UST system into use, acquiring one, switching a UST to certain substances, or permanent closure. You also have to report suspected releases from your UST. Once you confirm a release, you must report your actions or your plan to correct the damage the release caused. Federal record-keeping requirements are more extensive. You're required to keep records of most mandatory actions for a certain period of time.

The Importance of Regulated UST Training

Due to improved equipment, the EPA says that one of the biggest causes of a UST release today is the failure to operate or maintain it properly. That's why the training component of the 2015 update is so important. UST operators need training specific to their jurisdiction and operator class. As an online training provider with over 20 years of experience in Environmental Health and Safety, we have a big catalog of state and class-specific UST training. It's a cost-effective and convenient way to stay compliant.

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