Rural R.I. Town at Epicenter of Leaking Fuel Tank Story

This Mobil gas station in Richmond, R.I., was at the center of a ’60 Minutes’ story in the early 1980s about leaking underground fuel tanks. Three decades later, some 1,300 underground fuel tanks in Rhode Island leak gasoline and other contaminants. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

This Mobil gas station in Richmond, R.I., was at the center of a ’60 Minutes’ story in the early 1980s about leaking underground fuel tanks. Three decades later, some 1,300 underground fuel tanks in Rhode Island leak gasoline and other contaminants. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

More than 30 years later leaking gasoline remains a problem nationwide

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

RICHMOND, R.I. — The story of Canob Park is a nearly forgotten one today, but in 1983 the neighborhood received national attention, when “60 Minutes,” the most popular show on TV at the time, featured the plight of a local neighborhood. The intent was to highlight an emerging environmental problem: hundreds of thousands of aging and leaking underground gas tanks and a lack of environmental regulations to address the threat.

The Canob Park story had the important elements of a good pollution drama: an intimidating big corporation, a local government too scared to shut down a polluter and helpless residents dealing with well water contaminated by gasoline.

In the rural village of Wyoming, leaking tanks from a Mobil gas station were polluting home drinking water in the nearby Canob Park neighborhood. An Exxon station directly across the street also was suspected of leaking gas.

The problems in the Canob Park neighborhood began in 1969 and still weren’t resolved after the “60 Minutes” report aired 14 years later. The national publicity, however, did increase awareness about the risks of leaking underground gas tanks, which helped lead to Congress passing new regulations in 1984 and a new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) program being created in 1985.

Improvements, though, were slow to take hold across the country, and in Canob Park. Decades of incremental fixes led to modest progress. But the local Mobil station featured in the “60 Minutes” report continues to operate, while a full cleanup never occurred, nor an assessment of the environmental damage done.

Rhode Island has 1,544 underground fuel tanks in use today, according to state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) data. The state also has 1,374 underground fuel tanks with leaking issues, including 155 active tanks and 1,219 inactive ones. The state inspects about 400 tanks annually, and eight new leaks were reported last year. The Rhode Island clean-up program is funded through a 1-cent gas tax.

Despite these persistent leaking problems, it’s still safer to bury the tanks than to keep them above ground, said Sofia Kaczor, principal environmental scientist for DEM’s underground storage tank management program.

But there are risks. “Good maintenance is the key,” Kaczor said. “Everything is buried underground. It’s hard to identify the problems when everything is underground.”

Fred Stanley, fire chief for the Hope Valley Wyoming Fire District, was on the job when the Canob Park story broke and is quoted in the “60 Minutes” report. He recently told ecoRI News that the EPA’s initial response was inadequate and that the TV coverage did help increase awareness.

“We didn’t have any local authority,” said Stanley, 79, who retires in June. “There were no laws like they have today. All of the regulations came out of the mess over there (in Canob Park).”

ecoRI News contacted the EPA and ExxonMobil. Neither responded.

A former Exxon gas station across from the Mobil station also reportedly had leaking tanks, but wasn’t directly linked to the Canob Park contamination. A Walgreens has since replaced the Exxon station.

The area around the gas station and former gas station is an environmentally sensitive wetland with nearby ponds. Richmond is at the base of the largest aquifer in the state.

While business advocacy groups complain of environmental overregulation, there were no regulations allowing the DEM to take action against Mobil. Today, DEM has a full-time program for monitoring underground fuel tanks.

The Canob Park saga began in June 1968 with the construction of a new Mobil gas station just off Exit 3 at the I-95 interchange. Almost immediately, gasoline odors were detected in the station’s restroom and from the water fountain.

For all of the homes and businesses in the village of Wyoming, well water was the primary water source. Mobil made repairs to a connection pipe to one of its five underground fuel tanks, but the odors persisted. An audit by Mobil found that 2,529 gallons of gasoline were lost during the first eight months of the station’s opening.

Three months later, Mobil installed a carbon water filter at the station to address the odor issue.

In 1970, less than a half-mile away on Canob Lane, two residents complained of gasoline in their water. The state Department of Health confirmed the odor but determined that the water was safe to drink. An independent laboratory found trace amounts of gasoline in the wells.

Rather than find the source, Mobil installed carbon water filters at both homes. Three months later, a third home tested positive for gasoline in its well water. Mobil drilled new wells for three of the homes and bottled water was delivered to residents.

In 1971, gasoline was found in wells used by the gas station. Two years later, three more homes detected gas in their well water.

It wasn’t until a decade later, in 1981, that a leak was found in one of the station’s underground tanks. Three of the fuel tanks were replaced. In 1982, the EPA launched a study. It was eventually determined that a plume of leaked gasoline had migrated underground from the Mobil station, contaminating the neighboring groundwater supply.

In 1983, Mobil agreed to then-Gov. Joseph Garrahy’s request to help fund a municipal water system. In 1985, a groundwater treatment system was installed and 350 gallons of contaminated water were removed from a recovery well. That same year, damage was reported to one tank and all were removed, along with 100 yards of contaminated soil.

The year before, 251 yards of contaminated soil had been removed and an underground waste oil tank replaced. In 1991, DEM issued a notice of violation and Mobil paid a $44,450 penalty for failing to test between 1986 and 1991. More wells for monitoring and cleanup were installed.

In 1994, a small hole was found in a gas tank, resulting in four gas tanks being removed. A groundwater treatment and recovery system was installed, along with three new underground tanks.

Currently, quarterly testing is ongoing at both sites.

There are still some 74,000 leaking underground fuel tanks across the country, according to the EPA.