By Keith Reid

Changes from the 1980s can still be felt today. The digital age moved beyond the hobbyist era into general business operations and personal computing. The handheld “brick” form factor did not last long, but the cellphone is here to stay. Fortunately, most of the fashion trends—legwarmers, shoulder pads, acid-washed jeans and parachute pants—have not stayed with us (though they were an improvement over some of the horrors of the 1970s).

In addition, petroleum retailing and marketing continued to move from the service bay to the convenience store format in the 1980s. Card readers, both in stores and at the dispenser, were making the manual imprinter a thing of the past. And on the environmental front, a sweeping set of new underground storage tank (UST) regulations launched in 1988. The goal was to address leaking USTs through a combination of replacements, updates and mandated monitoring requirements with a 10-year window to get on board. That resulted in a massive replacement of old underground storage tanks throughout the industry.

Which brings us to today. The typical warranty on an underground storage tank was for 30 years. The math is not hard to calculate, so today, a great many tanks are approaching or surpassing their warranty periods. So, what does that mean for tank operators?

Unfortunately, there is no “one size fits all” answer. Some 36 states offer a state environmental remediation program to address releases. The state programs tend to take a broader approach, but some focus on tank age. And with the current economic circumstances (building on budgets that were strained before COVID hit), there is no guarantee that state programs will continue as they have in the past.

The remaining 14 states require a similar level of financial support for releases, typically through private insurance. Private insurers commonly (though not exclusively) have a focus on the tank warranty period with their policies.


Scope of the Problem

Just how many tanks are we talking about? That is a critical question, and also one that has no solid answer.

In late 2015, the Association of State and Territorial Solid Waste Management Officials (ASTSWMO) released the report “Analysis of UST System Infrastructure in Select States,” which provided at least a thumbnail picture of the UST population and some of the attitudes among insurers and regulators regarding tank type and age. The report involved—to varying degrees—27 states and a range of interested parties.

The report found 59% of the tanks averaged more than 20 years in age. A total of 39% of the tanks were between 20 and 29 years old. Obviously, five years have passed, and those numbers have certainly increased (offset to some extent by tank replacements and decommissioning).

Eight of the states were able to provide more detailed information on tank materials and construction. There was a relatively even split between fiberglass and steel, along with a surprising number of fiberglass single-walled tanks (25.4%). The presence of various biofuels was covered but not down to specific concentrations such as E10 (10% ethanol) versus E85 (85% ethanol).

While something is better than nothing, many sources in the ASTSWMO report, (and everyone interviewed for this article), noted that there is a crucial lack of granular data on the source of tank releases.

Bob Renkes, executive director of the Fiberglass Tanks & Pipe Institute, outlined the scope of the problem. “How many out-of-warranty tanks remain? How many have encountered problems? When do they encounter the problems? Does that change by single wall, double wall and manufacturer? Is there a difference between steel and fiberglass? What is the correlation between the tank’s age and its useful life? We just don’t know.” he said.

At what point should tank age become an issue? Most failures are identified within days to a few years after tank goes in the ground and are typically  elated to a specific manufacturing errors or improper installation.

“There’s no change in the properties of steel, like strength. It doesn’t crack—the welds don’t change,” said Wayne Geyer, executive vice president at the Steel Tank Institute (STI/SPFA). “We’ve seen tanks that are 45 years old that you can still see the stencil on the steel from the mill. And you can see tanks coming out of the ground with our decals on the outside of the tank that looked like they were new. People were pulling tanks left and right in the nineties that were in really good shape on the outside.”

On the plus side, USEPA is apparently finalizing an aggressive survey and database of the existing tank population. Hopefully, this will begin to add some clarity.


The 30-year Warranty

There is a suggestion that the common 30-year tank warranty was created as a marketing proposition during the heyday of tank replacements. There does not appear to be any specific rationale for choosing 30 years over, say, 20 or 40 years.

It is not clearly established that there is a specific age at which tank performance begins to significantly degrade. As the ASTSWMO report noted: “Anecdotal information and opinions expressed by insurance companies and other risk management experts are quite diverse as to whether the age of the tank is a significant or decisive factor in assessing the risk of leaks.”

“I’d argue that the life of the tank is probably more than 30 years,” said Colin Donovan, president of STICO Mutual Insurance Company. STICO insures steel tank manufacturers and provides the foundation for their warranties. “The 30 years, for whatever reason, was  chosen and that’s stuck. There are certainly tanks that are still operable after 40 or 50 years.”


Private Insurance

Lacking a clear view of the underlying dynamics of tank failure, the insurance industry must have some metric for risk assessment. While each insurance company has its own actuarial models for insuring underground storage tanks (or more specifically the ramifications of a leak from an underground storage tank), the 30-year warranty appears to be a milestone event for many in how they structure the coverage.

“The underwriter mindset is not if but when is it going to happen,” said Marshall Yacoe, vice president, environmental services lead energy and environmental for Lockton Insurance Brokers LLC. “So, as tanks get older, underwriters began to add additional scrutiny, particularly as they pass 25 years.”

The ramifications for the retailer can be significant in terms of both premiums and deductibles.

“If you have a tank that’s 24 years old and you have a release, you might pay $10,000 before insurance kicks in,” said Yacom. “If that tank is 27 to 28 years old, that deductible can be anywhere from $50,000 to $250,000. And once it hits 35 years, those deductibles can reach $500,000 or some carriers not wanting to write it anymore. Unless you have a big portfolio to balance out the risk, it becomes very difficult to get coverage.” He did note that it would not necessarily be the only factor under consideration. An underwriter can go to bat with the carrier for a retailer with a strong record of maintenance and successful compliance.

In fact, maintenance is likely the biggest factor in the reliability and soundness of a fueling infrastructure. “Any tank that is properly maintained really has an indefinite life,” Donovan said. “I speak mostly for steel because that’s our focus. If you can keep the water out and keep the food sources [for microbial growth out] they can last indefinitely. If you don’t have proper maintenance, you are going to have corrosion from the inside. We’re starting to get the word out and think that’s one of the reasons why we’re seeing a lower failure rate in the last five to 10 years.”

Some private insurance companies focus their approach almost entirely on the operator and maintenance aspect. “We’re not a big carrier, but this is all we do,” said Brian Wiegert, vice president of underwriting for PMMIC. “We approach this through loss control and inspections. We go out and confirm the equipment, make sure it’s installed the way the manufacturer wanted it installed and operating the way the manufacturer wants it to operate. Tank age is a concern, but we don’t have an age limit or non-renew or cancel currently because of age. It doesn’t scare us because we have [our] data to analyze it.”

While the company does not have arbitrary metrics for tanks, it does make sure the operators are on the ball. “We work with regulators to try to keep people in compliance because our policy requires them to be in compliance, and without the owner operator we wouldn’t be in business,” said Wiegert. “And we will cancel people who fail to take care of their equipment or don’t respond to the things that require fixes.”

Anonymous insurers provided their perspectives (both for and against) on using tank age as a metric in the ASTSWMO report. Supporting the idea that age should not be a primary factor, one noted: “Arbitrary age limits are a bad idea. We have not seen an age [at which] tanks are likely to fail…Data indicates fiberglass tanks should last over 100 years…Steel tanks may have a similar lifespan, although anodes need to be replaced periodically…tanks [should be replaced] not because of their age, but because of the fuels to which they are exposed. If fiberglass tanks [contain] diesel there is no need to replace them. If they are going to see 15% or greater alcohol, they should be removed or replaced.”

Another anonymous insurer raised an interesting perspective on tank age beyond material performance: “We have been limiting our exposure…on older tanks for the past six or seven years…[Most of our claims] come from piping related incidents, but some…from tank failures where there is a slow leak that gets bigger over time, or a total failure…The problem with many older tanks from an underwriting perspective is that they are usually undesirable risks [in other ways]…run down, not profitable…they change hands every year or two…where we have good owners taking care of their tank systems, [we] will continue to insure.”


State Tank Programs

Most retailers likely fall under one of the state tank programs. These programs vary greatly in how they look at an aging tank population. It is strongly advised that all retailers make themselves fully aware of not just their state(s) compliance program but how it views aging underground storage tanks in general relative to financial assurance funds.

However, a few trends seem to stand out. In the states surveyed in the ASTSWMO report the majority did not have a legal requirement or statute requiring the replacement of old USTs or UST equipment. Those that did tended to focus on the replacement of single-walled systems. That appears to be the case more broadly.

Several states that have focused more on tank age have also specifically modified how they regulate UST lifespan. For example, in 2016 Connecticut increased and improved life expectancy from 30 years to 40 years. And Maine similarly offers an extension beyond the 30-year warranty requirement as long as the tank, its associated piping and other facility components pass integrity testing.

On a positive note, a number of states offer financial incentives and other supports to facilitate UST upgrades or replacements.


What to Do?

Upgrading aging storage tanks requires a significant amount of capital, that is balanced against the likelihood of significantly increased premiums and deductibles. Piping and other components can require replacement as well. And retailers will not have the ability to “roll the dice” on the chance of not having insurance versus paying out-of-pocket for a spill.

Retailers that are not part of a state program must, according to federal regulation 40 CFR Part 280, have sufficient coverage or an approved capability to cover $1 million for any potential spill. Inability to provide proof of this financial coverage will most likely see a tank red flagged and put out of operation.

For those with tanks nearing but not quite at the warranty point (if that is the crucial insurer metric), there is time to plan for a replacement strategy. For those where time is running out, the consideration comes down to making the upgrade or potentially shutting down or selling the site to another operator.

The situation generally is not as dire for those retailers who happen to be taking part in a state program and have been diligent about maintenance and compliance, at least not yet. While the state programs seem to take a more holistic approach versus a specific age deadline (with notable exceptions), it is uncertain how long that will continue as the aging tanks move further and further past the 30-year mark.

Similarly, a significant event involving an older tank or an aggressive regulatory move by an influential state could easily change the balance. State budget problems, most certainly impacted negatively by the current COVID lockdown crisis, could very well see significant changes to their UST programs, enforcement and financial assurance funds.