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THURSDAY, JANUARY 5, 2006
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EDITORIAL

ADEM should give notice of underground leaks

Alabama Department of Environmental Management officials need to remind themselves they work for the public. There is no excuse for continued delays in adopting a policy of rapid notification to those who live or work within 300 feet of reported underground gasoline leaks.

Government officials often complain that the media and the public provide simplistic solutions to complex problems. Often they are right. Sometimes, though, the simple solution is the right one.

Thousands of gasoline-filled underground storage tanks litter the state. They occasionally leak. Because they are underground, the leak often enters the groundwater. Once in the groundwater, it can migrate in unexpected directions.

Determining the direction of the plume is difficult. It requires expensive monitoring wells that, if not in the right places, may miss the gasoline flow altogether. Accurate calculation of the direction and speed of the plume takes months or, quite often, years.

Six-year-old Haley Terry of Decatur has lived her whole life above a gasoline plume. ADEM discovered the leak in 1999, the year of Haley's birth but did not mention it to her parents until December 2004, after a doctor told her parents she had leukemia.

Did she absorb enough benzene — one of many toxic components of gasoline — to cause her leukemia? Did she absorb enough from playing in the soil in her backyard, breathe enough of it in her home or ingest enough from the pecans that fell from a tree whose roots may have stretched into contaminated groundwater? ADEM doesn't know. And doctors can't be certain that benzene caused her illness.

What ADEM does know is that detecting the direction of a plume is a slow and inexact process. It also knows that plumes pose potential danger only to those living within about 300 feet of the leak's source.

The simple solution: When a leak is reported, ADEM should immediately notify all those working or residing within 300 feet of its source.

ADEM officials complain this approach is unscientific. It may turn out the leaked substance is not toxic, they protest. It may turn out the gasoline did not migrate at all. It may turn out it migrated away from nearby residences.

So what? What harm is there in notifying residents of a leak but that it may not be serious? What gives ADEM officials, safe in their Montgomery offices, the right to decide for us whether we should be concerned?

Immediate notification of an underground leak provides significant benefits. A resident who smells gasoline in his yard is more likely to pay attention if he knows of a nearby leak. A homeowner near a leak may be more likely to open windows to avoid the possibility of a toxic buildup in the house. A homeowner may forego a vegetable garden until he knows more about the risk. A homebuilder may take extra steps to make sure benzene released from the soil cannot enter a new home through its foundation. A person with an ailment will know to mention the reported leak to the doctor, facilitating an accurate diagnosis.

Mailing a few letters or knocking on a few doors is not a major expense, even for cash-strapped ADEM. So why does ADEM resist such a simple solution?

The answer is obvious, and disappointing.

A resident who does not know he lives above a toxic plume will not sue the gas station that leaked it. A resident who knows about it might.

A spokesman said ADEM wants to receive input on proposed notification rules from a board that manages an insurance fund that pays for gasoline clean-ups and lawsuits by those claiming to be affected by underground leaks. The board consists entirely of people associated with the petroleum industry.

Protecting the petroleum industry from lawsuits is not ADEM's mission. Its mission is to protect the people of this state. If its officers do not grasp the distinction, it is time they make room for those who do.

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