Undercurrents: Government Keeps Close Tabs on Gas Stations but Can’t Make Them Operate

A regular Source column, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events as they develop beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.

The V.I. government closely monitors territory gas stations – especially from the ground down. The enforcement of strict regulations protects the territory against pollution from underground fuel tanks. As for aesthetic pollution above ground – that’s another story. The government appears powerless to clean up derelict properties that house the remnants of gas stations that closed months or even years ago.

Following the recent announcement of a settlement between the U.S. government and Total Puerto Rico petroleum company addressing issues of possible leaks at Total stations in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, officials from the local government explained its role in routine, ongoing monitoring of all underground storage tanks.

Major leaks could contaminate the soil and possibly the water table with a variety of hazardous substances, including benzene, a cancer-causing agent, so inspections are supposed to be frequent or, ideally, constant.

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The responsibility for oversight lies with the V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources.
Kerten Peters is on the front line of that effort and he and DPNR spokesman Jamal Nielson explained the process.

There are 46 active UST (underground storage tank) facilities in the territory, some with more than one tank, they said. Most of them belong to gas service stations, but there are also some marinas and an AT&T facility. Most storage tanks on St. Croix hold between 10,000 and 12,000 gallons, while those on St. Thomas are generally smaller, holding between 6,000 and 8,000 gallons.

However, the largest UST facility is at Yacht Haven Marina on St. Thomas and it houses eight 12,000-gallon underground tanks.

Peters said there are two ways to keep track. The preferred method is called Automatic Tank Gauging. It involves sensors in the tanks themselves and in the pipes, as well as a computer unit that continuously records the activity, thus ensuring a timely notice of leaks.

Vapor monitoring is a manual system; it requires inserting a hand-held probe called a photo ionization detector into a well near the tank(s) to check for evidence of leaks.

UST owners are required to report any suspected leaks to DPNR. The presence of fuel outside a tank is obviously an indication there may be a leak, but Peters noted that it could also be the result of someone overfilling a tank, so officials watch to see if the amount of fuel outside the tank continues to grow over time. If so, it’s pretty clear there’s a leak.

The department also conducts a tightness test annually that involves pressurizing the lines to each tank, Peters said.

For ongoing monitoring, currently all the active gas stations on St. Thomas use ATG, Peters said. On St. Croix, some stations are still using vapor monitoring, but they are required to switch to ATG by May 6. He estimated the cost of conversion at between $12,000 and $15,000 for three tanks, which is a typical number of tanks at one facility.

If an owner/operator wants to close a storage facility, he must apply to DPNR for a permit to close and must submit a plan for soil testing. If the soil testing reveals any contamination, the owner must first clean up the site and prove that it is clean before he is allowed to close the facility. He must also remove the tank(s), Peters said.

Four stations on St. Thomas have a “temporary closure,” according to DPNR. They do not have to remove the tank(s) but they still must continue to perform regular leak detection. Those are the Domino stations that Nielsen said closed in April 2010. Unlike the operating stations on St. Thomas, they are still using the vapor system.

While DPNR is checking things underground, Licensing and Consumer Affairs’ division of Weights and Measures is keeping tabs on the distribution of gas, the accuracy of pumps and the price per gallon.

There are 18 active gas stations on St. Thomas and two active stations on St. John, according to Clement Warner, who is chief inspector for the division. There are also five stations that are not operating – the four Domino stations and one Puma (formerly Texaco) station in Estate Dorothea on St. Thomas’ Northside, which was known as Friendly’s Grocery and Gas Station until it closed up a few months ago.

Tony Cook, the Puma representative on St. Thomas, said Monday that the company will reopen the station in Dorothea “soon” – probably within three months. “We’ve got contractors looking at it.”

The former owner of Friendly’s, who ran it as a franchise, is “out of the picture,” Cook said. He said he could not remember the current owner’s name. The station first opened in 2000 and a number of individuals have been listed as owners/operators since then.

Caesar Cortez-Garcia, owner of the Domino stations, is based in Puerto Rico. He did not return a call seeking comment. A woman who identified herself as Cortez’s assistant, referred questions to the St. Thomas office manager, Lee Smith.

“They are the ones who could tell you,” Smith said. “They tell me that they’re going to reopen but, as to when, I don’t know.”

She said part of her job consists of keeping the company current on its reporting requirements, making sure it is current on its property taxes and keeping its business license up to date.

Licensing Commissioner designee Devin Carrington said that’s all the company needs to do to be in good standing.

“There’s no legal mechanism for us to foster the reopening of those facilities,” he said. As long as a business pays for its license, is current in its taxes and has complied with any other requirements – such as getting a permit from the Fire Service – there is no obligation that it actually open its doors to the public.

But he added, “it makes no sense to me” for a company to incur expenses and not operate.

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