At Rickey’s Grocery in Muscadine, three gas pumps rise from a concrete pad along Cleburne County Road 49, offering fuel to travelers as they have for years.
Not all of the fuel always made it into the tanks of passing cars, however.
Nearly a decade after leaks in the station’s underground fuel storage tanks were discovered, the station’s former owner, Rickey Norton, is still responsible for remedying the effects of gasoline that contaminated nearby soil. The cleanup is being paid for through a fund that has spent $450 million on such projects statewide since its inception in 1989. Cleburne County officials hope the same fund will help pay for the cleanup of a suspected fuel leak near county-owned storage tanks on Haley Road in Heflin, though the state’s environmental agency initially denied the county’s request.
Fuel spills and leaking tanks can be a threat to the public, according to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.
“At one time, underground storage tanks were the leading cause of groundwater contamination in Alabama and across the nation,” said Scott Hughes, a spokesman for ADEM. “Here in Alabama almost 50 percent of the population relies on groundwater resources as their primary source of drinking water.”
To help reduce the threat of underground storage tank leaks, the Environmental Protection Agency and ADEM in Alabama introduced regulations in 1988 for the installation of the tanks and technical requirements for systems already in operation, Hughes said. The regulations for tanks include corrosion protection, leak detection equipment and safeguards against spills when filling the tanks, he said.
Norton said petroleum contamination at Rickey’s Grocery was found because of some of the 1988 regulations that mandated the land be tested before it was sold in 2005. When contamination was found on the property, he dug up the underground fuel storage tanks and replaced them. He has had contractors doing remediation ever since, Norton said. His application for reissuance of the permit needed for the remediation effort is currently being considered by ADEM.
Norton said he has no idea how much longer remediation will take.
Hughes said there is no such thing as a typical remediation because every spill is unique. The time required to clean contaminated soil depends on a number of things including the amount of fuel spilled, the type of soil, whether it has impacted groundwater and how far fuel may have been carried from the original site.
Norton has relied on the Alabama Underground and Aboveground Storage Tank Trust Fund to pay his remediation efforts. The fund receives a per-gallon fee from all fueling stations and the money is used for cleanup of spills and contamination.
Asked how many spills the fund had helped to clean, Hughes wrote in an email that it had paid more than $450 million in remediation costs since its inception in 1989.
Cindy Herrell, who bought Rickey’s Grocery from Norton, owned a Georgia gas station before that. She said spills are common at stations. She doesn’t think there’s a gas station in the United States that hasn’t had some sort of fuel contamination, either from customers spilling their product or fuel tank leaks, Herrell said.
Cleburne County has been dealing with its contamination since a resident spotted a film on a creek near the county equipment shed. The county has two above-ground fuel tanks, one containing diesel fuel and one containing gasoline. The tanks don’t appear to be leaking, but the fuel lines are buried underground, said Shannon Robbins, county engineer.
“It’s a good chance that’s the source,” Robbins said.
However, until a contractor can get to the site with the equipment to do underground testing, no source can be pinpointed, he said. Still, the county has been working under the assumption it’s responsible for the leak and has been doing remediation.
The county has already spent $75,000 and could be on the hook for at least another $200,000 by the time the project is complete, Robbins has estimated. However, he said he doesn’t know how much remediation will be needed or how long it might take.
The County Commission decided last week to do away with the county fueling station fed by the tanks and any risk associated with storing and dispensing fuel. It’s moving to state-issued cards that can be used to purchase gas at local service stations.
Laura Cobb, a Cleburne County commissioner, said the technology in gas stations has changed a lot over the years. Her parents owned a service station in Fruithurst for 35 years, and she has managed Stateline Fuel Center in Heflin for nearly 12 years.
Tanks now have alarms that will sound if there’s a leak. In addition, state workers test the tanks, fuel lines and tank fill openings every year, Cobb said.
ADEM initially denied Cleburne County’s request to use money from the trust for its cleanup efforts. The county is still hoping to become eligible for the trust fund program, Robbins said.