- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 23, 2016

FRANKLIN, Tenn. (AP) - Republican Gov. Bill Haslam on Tuesday said his administration opposed legislation that allows a state board to eliminate fees paid for underground storage tanks, including the Haslam-family owned Pilot Flying J chain of truck stops.

The governor said criticism of his administration’s actions regarding the board that oversees the state’s underground tanks is unwarranted.

Although he ultimately signed the bill into law, Haslam said his administration was against the new law.

Currently, owners of underground storage tanks pay about 10 percent of a cleanup fund, while taxpayers are responsible for the other 90 percent. Under the new law, a state board could vote to eliminate all of the tank owners’ fees.

The Haslam administration issued a “flag” letter to sponsors of the legislation in March to indicate it opposed the legislation.

“We were adamantly opposed to it,” Haslam said. “We were publicly against that.”

But the governor ultimately signed the bill into law after both the House and Senate passed it unanimously.

Haslam cited U.S. Environmental Protection Agency statistics that show that Tennessee ranks second in the country in terms of cleanups of leaky underground storage tanks. The state’s 98 percent completed cleanup rate was 1 percentage point behind Maine’s top rate, according to the EPA.

Haslam is the former president of Knoxville-base Pilot, which was founded by his father and is run by his brother. Haslam has not had an active role in the company since he ran for Knoxville mayor in 2003, and announced during his 2010 gubernatorial run that he would recuse himself from Pilot-related matters if elected.

That pledge came into question in his first year in office when Haslam imposed a temporary freeze on new rules and regulations, including a proposed requirement for gas stations to replace older single-walled underground fuel storage tanks with double-walled tanks if they are used to dispense fuel blends with more than 10 percent ethanol.

Haslam told the Chattanooga Times Free Press at the time that he had been unaware that the freeze on rules and regulations would affect underground tanks and potentially Pilot.

The following year, Haslam proposed the mergers of several boards, including combining the Solid Waste Disposal and the Petroleum Underground Storage Tank boards into one.

Haslam said at the time that he had cleared the move with attorneys to ensure there was no conflict of interest. He said the merger was proper because the combination of the boards didn’t change their authority.

For the past three years, underground tank owners have paid about 10 percent of the cleanup fund.

The tank owners’ share of the payments had hovered around 20 percent in the seven years following the industry’s emergency $10 million bailout of the fund in 2004. In the four years before the crisis, the owners’ share averaged about 11 percent.

The Tennessean newspaper reported last week that the merger of the boards resulted in the elimination of consumer representatives while keeping four petroleum industry members. The Haslam administration argues that the industry influence has been lessened because the number of their representatives has remained the same while the size of the board grew from nine to 12 voting members appointed by the governor.

The governor said he doesn’t “care one way or another” whether consumer advocates are returned to the board.

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