Connolly introduces bill to crack down on leaks at tank farms

U.S. Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) has returned to an issue that not only hits close to home but also long ago put him on a path to politics: leaky oil tanks.

Last week, Connolly introduced a bill that would require the federal government to shut down any petroleum storage facility that repeatedly leaks oil in a residential area or contaminates its groundwater.

The Protecting Neighborhoods From Oil Pollution Act of 2011, filed Nov. 15, would modify the Federal Water Pollution Control Act by requiring the closure of any plant that is within one mile of 100 or more dwellings and has had two or more discharges within a 10-year period.

The measure also would close any oil storage facility that causes groundwater contamination affecting 100 or more dwellings. The bill, H.R. 3426, would require the facilities to close even if the discharges resulted from an act of God, war or negligence by the federal government.

Although the proposed law would affect any tank farm in the United States, Connolly’s bill takes aim at a storage depot in his back yard: the Pickett Road Tank Farm in the eastern part Fairfax City, which has been fueling tanker trucks since the 1960s.

In 1991, Connolly was president of the Mantua Citizens Association when a large, underground spill from the tank farm seeped into his Fairfax County neighborhood, according to a Washington Post account at the time. There have been other leaks, including one in January 2010 that spilled more than 7,000 gallons of diesel fuel on the premises.

This year, Virginia’s General Assembly, pushed by Sen. J. Chapman “Chap” Petersen (D-Fairfax) and Del. David L. Bulova (D-Fairfax), moved to tighten regulations on the above-ground storage depot. A law signed by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) in May requires that all tank farms follow current safety codes, such as ensuring that their tanks have double hulls.

But one of the companies with operations at Pickett Road suggested that Connolly’s bill might go too far.

“I think it’s important the environment be protected and people’s neighborhoods need to be protected, but if you closed it down you’d also have to deal with how you distribute motor fuels in Northern Virginia,” said Sam Whitehead, a spokesman for Colonial Pipeline, which operates a pipeline at the tank farm.

Five companies — Citgo, a Houston-based petroleum company; Motiva, a Houston-based venture that is jointly owned by Shell Oil and Saudi Arabia Refining; TransMontaigne, a Denver-based fuel supply firm; Buckeye Partners, a publicly traded pipeline company headquartered in Houston; and Colonial Pipeline — use the site, said the city fire marshal, Andrew S. Wilson.

Wilson, whose office is charged with inspecting the depot, estimates that the tank farm supplies about 40 percent of the gas used by the region’s service stations.

Wilson said workers have recovered nearly 7,500 gallons from the Jan. 28, 2010, leak of diesel fuel from TransMontaigne’s terminal. The leak was caused by a rupture in underground piping, and none of the spillage left the site, Wilson said. The underground piping has been replaced with above-ground pipes that are easier to inspect.

Wilson said the state’s Department of Environmental Quality recently formed an advisory panel, of which he is a member, on implementing the new Virginia law.

A spokeswoman for Buckeye Partners said the company would not comment on the measure. Calls to other companies that use the terminal were not returned.

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