The Underground Storage Tanks Program…Working Towards Environmental Protection for All Communities

Posted on Friday, April 21st, 2023 |

Active UST Sites.  Data Source: UST Finder | US EPA.

The UST universe is large — as of our most recent report there are over 540,000 USTs at approximately 193,000 facilities across the country. USTs are in almost every community, but the communities closest to USTs tend to be more disadvantaged environmentally and economically. While there is no single way to characterize communities located near UST facilitates and releases, the population surrounding our sites is more minority, low income, linguistically isolated, and less likely to have a high school education than the U.S. population as a whole.

Addressing the disproportionate burden that some communities have carried for decades is a major priority for the Biden Administration and for EPA. In 2021, President Biden issued two executive orders – Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government (Executive Order 13985) and Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad (Executive Order 14008) – that directed federal agencies to promote and work toward proactively achieving environmental justice. The work being done in the tanks program and other land protection and cleanup programs at EPA supports these priorities. OUST is working to integrate environmental justice considerations into UST and LUST programs and programmatic decisions. We aim to increase focus and attention in areas with potential environmental justice concerns and to consider cumulative environmental impacts on disproportionately impacted communities.

“Whether by conscious
design or institutional
neglect, communities
of color in urban
ghettos, in rural
‘poverty pockets’,
or on economically
impoverished Native-
American reservations
face some of the
worst environmental
devastation in the

– Professor
Robert Bullard

Environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. Environmental justice will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards, and the same degree of access to environmental decision-making processes. This is a goal that challenges and inspires us as we work with our many partners to implement the UST program.

So, what can we do about it? Fundamentally, we need to work to address environmental justice concerns and to factor this issue into our programs and decision making. Environmental burdens vary widely, even within a short distance. We need to identify which communities are facing a disproportionate burden. Then, we need to consider how we can enhance our program to further protect those vulnerable communities. There is no one way to determine which community is facing disproportionate burdens, but we and our many partners have tools we can use to help narrow down our focus. To this end, EPA developed EJScreen. Many states also have mapping and other tools that we can learn from and adapt to develop a methodology that works for us. We recognize that our many state and tribal partners have no shortage of work to do. Our hope is that EJ concerns will be incorporated into the existing UST program goals and workload.

To identify some options for better integrating EJ into our programs, OUST worked with several regions and states to pilot various approaches. As a result of those pilots, we identified a number of possible approaches. A few example options include:

  • As an initial step, analyze the universe of UST facilities and LUST releases in your area using environmental justice criteria to identify sites in areas with EJ concerns.
  • Provide additional compliance assistance to facilities and risk communication resources to nearby communities.
  • Integrate environmental justice and cumulative impacts into LUST prioritization / risk ranking scheme both for oversight and direct cleanup sites.
  • Look for leveraging opportunities for stalled sites in communities with environmental justice concerns, such as the recent increased investment in brownfields funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.  

Different states and tribes have their own perspectives on environmental justice and even have different definitions and plans for the best way to address concerns. These differences help foster creativity and learning among us all. By working with our many partners, we can advance environmental justice and spur economic opportunity in overburdened communities. We believe that protecting and improving environmental conditions related to USTs and LUSTs is beneficial to the individual, to the community, and to the country as a whole. None of this can be done by one person or one office. We need “all hands on deck” to decrease environmental burdens, increase environmental benefits, and work to build healthy and sustainable communities. A federal government effort related to our environmental justice focus is the Justice40 initiative. Initiated by President Biden’s Executive Order 14008, the Justice40 initiative directs federal agencies to develop policies and strategies that strengthen compliance and enforcement, incorporate environmental justice considerations into their work, increase community engagement, and ensure that at least 40 percent of the benefits from federal investments flow to disadvantaged communities.

EJScreen – Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool — provides high-level data in a composite index that helps to improve understanding of the impacts to communities from UST/LUSTs, other environmental indicators, and socioeconomic factors.

Open LUST sites. Data Source: UST Finder | US EPA
Note: KY does not have any observations because their data did not indicate which releases were closed or active, so they are excluded from the map.

The Justice40 Initiative addresses a wide range of burdens that communities face, and the Leaking Underground Storage Tank (LUST) cleanup program is covered under its goal to reduce and remediate legacy pollution. In our LUST cleanup program we are measuring the percentage of LUST sites that are cleaned up in disadvantaged communities, as defined by the White House’s Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool (CEJST). Based on a national analysis of our most recent six-month reporting cycle ending in September 2022, 42% of our completed cleanups were in disadvantaged communities. The percentage of cleanups completed in disadvantaged communities varied by state, and some states have more opportunity to increase their percentage of cleanups in these areas.

We are at an interesting time in the UST program, with significant past accomplishments, plenty of work ahead of us, and a fair amount of uncertainty and change as the transportation sector continues to evolve. As we work in the UST program to prevent releases and in the LUST program to clean up those that occur, we can have a meaningful impact in reducing the cumulative impact and environmental burdens in underserved communities. It is our privilege and a responsibility to carry this program forward and to protect vulnerable communities throughout the country by working to ensure safe storage of petroleum and hazardous substances. I hope we can continue to build on the great work you all do and to ensure that disadvantaged communities benefit from our efforts. I look forward to working and learning together as we carry the program forward by incorporating environmental justice concerns into the valuable work we do.

Visit EPA’s Environmental Justice website for more information and resources.


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