Tanks on the corner, gas in the well

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I spent part of last week working on a story about a very unfortunate Albemarle County family whose well water is contaminated by gasoline from a nearby defunct service station. Read it here. I won’t repeat the Trauds’ disturbing tale in this space, but I will say this: When you start to learn what they’ve been through, you think "What amazingly rotten luck!" Then you learn more, and you get surprised that you haven’t heard of anyone else having the same problem.

As Todd Pitsenberger at the Department of Environmental Quality explained to me, leaky underground tanks at old gas stations are a shockingly widespread problem. The regional office where he works, which covers 14 counties, has roughly 200 cases at the moment, including 27 in Albemarle. And those are just the cases with active DEQ files; in Albemarle alone, he said, "I’m sure we have several hundred sites where this type of thing is happening."

Not all of those impact wells. If a tank is leaking but doesn’t create a problem for a well, stream, spring or other "receptor," the DEQ doesn’t pursue the case. But gas contaminates soil too, and of course it contains volatile chemicals like benzyne. Older gasoline also contains lead. Pitsenberger told me about some cases where soil has to be removed, trucked to Richmond and bio-incinerated. All you gardeners out there can appreciate what a terrible waste that is.

The leaking tanks are a legacy from the bad old days between World War II and the late ’90s, when they were just installed without much thought as to whether they’d rust and cause problems. Newer tanks are highly regulated and have monitors to alert their owners if they do start leaking. But if you start thinking about how many good ol’ mom-and-pop gas stations and country stores are at almost every crossroads of any size in Albemarle County, and how the vast majority of those are relatively old, you can start to grasp the problem. There are active DEQ cases right now at the Crossroads Store (29S and Plank Road), the Hunt Country Store (Garth Road), Toddsbury of Ivy, the Bellair Exxon, and almost two dozen other sites in Albemarle.

Speaking of the public in general, Pitsenberger said "It’s shocking that they aren’t more aware of [this problem]." It’s certainly a side effect of our car-centric culture that I hadn’t really considered. Anyone heard of this before? Anyone been personally affected?

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