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2002 Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development

October 2002 Report—Chapter 2

Case Study 2.2—Storage tanks—Significant gaps exist in current regulations

Significant gaps in the current federal regulations for storage tanks need to be addressed to help prevent and clean up contamination from storage tanks.

The current situation

In 2000, departments reported over 7,000 storage tank systems containing petroleum and allied petroleum products on federal lands. A storage tank system can consist of a single storage tank or two or more connected tanks. These systems may contain flammable substances (aviation and diesel fuel, engine oil, fuel oil, gasoline, solvents, and thinners). About 34 percent of the systems are underground, which makes it more difficult to detect contamination.

The map shows that aboveground and underground storage tank sites under the responsibility of the four departments we examined are spread throughout Canada. The accompanying bar graph shows the approximate number of storage tank systems, by region, for the four departments.

Note: For the three territories, the map does not show all storage tank system locations for Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. However, the bar graph includes all the storage tank systems in the territories under "Prairie and northern regions."

Source: Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, National Defence, and Transport Canada

Spills and leaks from storage tank systems on federal lands and Aboriginal lands have contaminated many sites. Spills and leaks can endanger human life, put wildlife at risk, destroy habitat, and interfere with local tourism, recreation, and fish farming. Even small amounts of the stored substances in the wrong places can make water unfit to drink, contaminate soils, create explosive hazards, and cause offensive odours (see illustration below).

How did this situation arise?

In the last 40 years, storage tank systems for petroleum products were installed on federal lands mainly to service an expanding transportation sector. Many of the systems were made of steel, without rust protection. As those systems age, they are more likely to leak, due in part to rusting.

What is the federal government doing?

In 1996, Environment Canada issued storage tank registration regulations under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. These regulations came into force in 1997 and apply to all owners of storage tank systems that contain petroleum or allied petroleum products and are on federal lands and Aboriginal lands. Each federal department must keep a record of all registered storage tank systems on its lands. It must also submit an annual compliance status report to Environment Canada or include the report in its performance report. All federal departments that own and operate storage tank systems in Canada agreed to comply with the regulations, except for Transport Canada (see fourth bullet below).

Under the regulations, Environment Canada receives and processes the annual storage tank reports from departments. As a regulator, Environment Canada is also expected to provide leadership, advice, and guidance to departments and to carry out compliance, implementation, and enforcement activities.

Are federal actions effective?

The current registration regulations are not enough. They are mainly a paper exercise that will do little, if anything, to reduce contamination caused from spills or leaks. We noted the following significant gaps in the regulations:

  • There is no provision that requires the cleanup of spills and leaks from storage tanks.
  • An owner can use a registered storage tank system that does not meet current codes and standards, as such compliance requirements are not included in the current regulations. A tank could be in compliance with the registration regulations and yet be leaking. There is no provision in the existing regulations to stop an owner from operating a leaking system.
  • For annual compliance reporting purposes, storage tank compliance is not clearly defined. The regulations make reference to guidelines that in turn refer to over 250 technical elements contained in codes and standards that cover many life-cycle aspects of storage tanks. However, it is not mandatory for departments to comply with these codes and standards. Each department has developed its own tools to determine storage tank compliance and they differ. The numbers indicating storage tank compliance as reported are misleading.
  • Problems occur when dealing with storage tanks owned by some tenants on federal lands. Departmental officials indicated that there has been some difficulty in getting some tenants to register their tanks. Another problem relates to the concern that the information reported by a custodial department in its annual report is not the same as what a tenant is required to provide to the department. Under the regulations, tenants are only required to provide information on the registration elements of their storage tank systems; they are not required to determine or report on compliance with the storage tank technical guidelines. Thus, a reporting department may assume a potential liability for tanks owned and operated by tenants that are reported as being compliant with the regulations. Transport Canada officials cited this as the main reason why it did not agree to comply with the registration regulations.
  • Inspections and monitoring of storage tank systems are not mandatory under the current regulations. Yet, regular inspection and monitoring for leaks is a basic preventive measure.

Lessons for the future

It is far less expensive to prevent a leak from occurring than to deal with the problem afterwards. A study conducted for Environment Canada indicated that it can be many times more costly to clean up contamination from a leaking tank than to upgrade or replace a tank.

Officials at two key departments have informed us that they are increasingly replacing underground storage tanks with aboveground storage tanks as this helps to reduce the risk of future contamination and to make it easier to detect leaks.

There are also alternatives to using petroleum storage tanks. For example, Fisheries and Oceans Canada has been replacing the main source of power at some of its remote diesel-operated lighthouse stations with solar power, a more sustainable energy source. This also has the added benefit of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which have implications for climate change.

Environment Canada is currently developing new storage tank regulations. Departmental officials informed us that they expect to publish updated regulations in the Canada Gazette, Part I, by March 2003.