Published On: Wed, Nov 21st, 2018

Underground Storage Tank Safety and Monitoring

Facts to Know About Belowground Tanks

Underground storage tanks provide an important storage method for many liquid substances. If the underground storage tank houses petroleum or other hazardous substances, Environmental Protection Agency regulations apply to its upkeep and monitoring. Code of Federal Regulations 40 CFR Part 280 contains the pertinent regulations. 

photo/ Discovery Channel

What does the EPA consider an underground storage tank (UST)?

An underground storage tank has at least ten percent of its combined volume underground. The regulations also apply to a system of connected piping and tanks with at least ten percent underground. According to EPA regulations, the tank system includes: 


  • the tank,
  • its underground connecting piping,
  • underground ancillary equipment, 
  • its containment system. 

Exceptions to USTs

In some cases, the EPA underground storage tank regulations do not apply, even if they store petroleum or another liquid hazard. The exceptions for these tanks include: 


  • farm or residential tanks of a noncommercial purpose holding 1,100 gallons or less storing motor fuel,
  • on premise heating oil storage tanks,
  • tanks in underground areas such as basements or tunnels sitting on or above the floor,
  • septic tanks,
  • storm water and wastewater collectors,
  • flow-through process tanks,
  • tanks with capacity of 110 gallons or less,
  • emergency spill and overfill tanks.

Safety Risks

The EPA designed its regulations to protect people from the safety risks posed by underground storage tanks leaking. If they leak, these tanks can contaminate the water supply. If you have property with a tank underground or purchase a property that potentially has underground tanks, you should have the tanks tested. 

A storage tank tester assesses if a property contains a buried storage tank, whether it’s operational and the material contained, then authors a report on it. Post report, the assessor should examine the tank or tank system for leaks. Three situations heighten the need for a leak check: 


  • if it has not been tested in the past,
  • if the tank shows worn areas,
  • if it isn’t in use.

According to the Groundwater Protection Council, the US houses 640,000 regulated underground tanks containing hazardous chemicals. About 465,000 leak and most of those require clean-up. Many do not get cleaned up though because the responsible party can’t be located. This puts a substantial portion of the US at risk for contaminated water – the homeowners with groundwater wells. A leaking tank on a nearby site can contaminate groundwater supplies which all connect in flow underground. Bathing in or consuming petroleum-polluted water can cause death and fuel leaks create a fire and explosive threat. 

Specific Hazards

Although petroleum products contain many hazardous substances, six top the list. Benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene and xylene, found in crude oil, top the list, closely followed by benzene and methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE). MTBE is a now discontinued fuel additive that has contaminated 9,000 neighborhood water lines in more than 30 states. 

There’s no way to know if tanks on your property leak and what substances leak without testing. A test costs about $500. Once located, an underground leak needs to be cleaned up and the fuel tank replaced. Testing may involve multiple methods. 

pressure test monitors pressurized fuel storage tanks during a specific time period. Its logs reflect any variances. Those variances indicate a leak. 

soil test determines the leak location by taking multiple samples from the area surrounding the storage tank. Chemical analysis determines which substances contaminated the area. Further tests may be required to determine the degree of contamination. 

water test determines if water penetrated an UST via a crack. Conversely, if a crack allowed water, it could also indicate the means by which toxic substances escaped. 

An ultrasound or ground-penetrating radar test produces an image of the tank, allowing the tester to pinpoint the leak. 


To clean up a leaking UST site, you must remove UST leak. Another option is to pack the tank in with sand or another biologically inactive material. You could also filter some pollutants out by forcing air through the liquid. Bury new tanks away from water sources and monitor them.

Author: Chad Brown
Bio – Mr. Brown has worked in the new home construction marketplace for over 30 years both as a contractor and project manager.

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