- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 1, 2011

When a massive oil leak at the Pickett Road tank farm caused millions of dollars in damage to homes in Fairfax’s Mantua neighborhood 20 years ago, Gerald E. Connolly was head of the local citizens association seeking answers. Now a congressman from Northern Virginia, Mr. Connolly is weighing federal draft regulations that could effectively shut down the tank farm amid leaks and spills that continue unabated.

Draft regulations from Mr. Connolly’s office would amend the Federal Water Pollution Control Act to require the closing of oil storage and processing facilities where oil has spilled multiple times near residential neighborhoods.

The regulations come after Mr. Connolly, a Democrat, has repeatedly urged the Environmental Protection Agency to investigate spills related to the Pickett Road tank farm.

“Any owner of a tank farm with this record of multiple oil spills should have either cleaned up its act or shut down, but this tank farm continues to endanger our neighborhood,” Mr. Connolly wrote in a letter to EPA administrator Lisa P. Jackson in November. “The negligence of the tank farm owners continues to endanger the health of everyone who lives near the tank farm, in addition to the health of the Accotink Creek watershed.”

Five companies operate on the tank farm, located on the border between Fairfax County and the city of Fairfax, which stores more than 1 million gallons of oil in a collection of above-ground tanks.

Residents and local lawmakers have long been concerned about contamination from accidents and spills, which have continued despite fines against the companies that operate and use the tank farm.

Federal and Virginia authorities ordered two companies to pay fines totaling about $150,000 to settle recent cases involving the farm.

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the State Water Pollution Control Board fined Transmontaigne, the 90-acre terminal’s operator, about $114,000 after 25,000 gallons of oil spilled between January and March 2010, and a Jan. 28, 2010 leak released 14,000 gallons of diesel fuel.

Baltimore Gas Tank Lines agreed earlier this month to pay about $50,000 after an incident that occurred last August.

A tanker truck traveling from the farm, filled with 8,800 gallons of gasoline, was involved in an accident and the truck overturned, contaminating soil near the accident and draining into a nearby creek. A smaller spill involving a tanker happened in September, and there was also a leak of about 1,000 gallons in March.

“Clearly, the overall effort of the tank farm is insufficient, notwithstanding the individual spills,” said Delegate David L. Bulova, Fairfax Democrat, who sponsored legislation in the House of Delegates that requires above-ground tanks to be brought up to current codes.

Tank farm owners now have until 2021 to restore tanks built before 1992 so they conform to current design requirements, such as having double bottoms to minimize leaks.

But after both chambers of the General Assembly passed the measure unanimously, lobbyist Lee Cowen registered with the state in March to lobby on behalf of oil company Citgo - one of several companies that own property at the tank farm. The move, which came as Gov. Bob McDonnell was weighing legislative amendments to the measure, raised eyebrows among the bill’s supporters.

“I don’t think the timing looked very good,” Mr. Bulova said.

Mr. Cowen said he was not authorized to speak to a reporter about his lobbying activities, and a Citgo spokesman declined comment.

Transmontaigne also declined to comment.

Mr. McDonnell, a Republican, ended up amending the bill to include a provision that would instead direct the state water control board to review the state’s oversight requirements for above-ground storage tanks and, if necessary, craft regulations aimed at preventing oil leaks.

The bill’s supporters immediately objected, fearing the amendment would gut their legislation.

“I had a hard time getting a coherent explanation as to what the objection was and who was bringing it,” said Sen. J. Chapman “Chap” Petersen, Fairfax Democrat, who sponsored the measure in the Senate, saying that none of it was addressed during the regular session.

The General Assembly voted down the governor’s amendment.

Taylor Thornley, a spokeswoman for Mr. McDonnell, said the amendment was based on advice from the attorney general’s office that the bill’s provisions may have violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution because it was crafted to address a single facility.

Administration officials then talked with the bill’s patrons and representatives from Fairfax, who presented additional legal arguments.

“Following these discussions, Governor McDonnell was satisfied that the legislation was consistent with the law and signed the bill,” Ms. Thornley said.

“Everybody was comfortable with the final version,” Mr. Petersen said.

Mr. Bulova said that once given the opportunity to sit down with the government and his staff, they were much more amenable to the legislation.

“The legal arguments on the other side were much, much stronger for why the state has a vested interested in regulating the tank farm like it did,” he said.

When asked if Baltimore Tank Lines had paid the fees it agreed to, H. William Molner, president of the company, referred comment to the state of Virginia.

“Why would you ask me that question?” he said. “I don’t care to answer that question.”

• David Sherfinski can be reached at dsherfinski@washingtontimes.com.

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