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New Director’s Rule Goes Underground

Thanks to a recently established Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) Director’s Rule 1-2012, Seattle‘s environment just got an important boost … and the reason isn’t even visible.

SDOT manages Seattle’s public transportation system and the Street Use  division is responsible for administering permits for public right-of-ways (streets, sidewalks, etc.) The new Director’s Rule addresses processing and reviewing Street Use permit applications for underground storage tanks (USTs) in the public place…yes, underground is considered part of the public right-of-way.  USTs often contain petroleum products that are regulated by the Washington State Department of Ecology. The rule provides specific requirements for installing, maintaining, operating, decommissioning, closing, or removing USTs located within the public right-of-way.

So, here’s the interesting part:  Historically, USTs were routinely permitted inthe public right-of-way and could be abandoned, if decommissioned properly. The new Director’s Rule establishes the SDOT policy to not issue new UST installation permits, as well as detailed permit requirements for the correct removal or decommissioning of USTs.

In general, the existing decommissioned, abandoned, and active USTs are located under the public right-of-way because they are from a by-gone era when they were totally acceptable.  This new rule responds to the fact that USTs, which frequently contain hazardous liquids, can erode over time, often from the very material they store.  Erosion can lead to the USTs leaking the remains of any previously stored liquids. When these materials leach out, they can contaminate ground water or the surrounding soil and possibly create unsafe conditions in the right–of-way.  Furthermore, if a tank leaks and contaminates the surrounding soils, this could require special handling and disposal, increasing the cost of general repair or removal.  Improperly decommissioned (or abandoned) USTs can also represent potential hazards depending on the type of material they hold if they are encountered unexpectedly during excavation activities.

To fully appreciate the importance of the implementation of this new rule, consider the following recent example.  A property owner was unaware of an existing abandoned tank associated with their property. A rain event flooded the empty tank and caused the residual UST material to flood down a city street into the storm drains and out into Puget Sound. Had the tank been removed or properly decommissioned, this would not have happened.

As part of the Street Use permit review, the new rule requires UST owners to obtain the appropriate permits, notifications, and reviews not only by SDOT, but also from the Seattle Fire Department and the Washington State Department of Ecology in order to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public and the environment.

In addition to the new Director’s Rule, Street Use staff is doing the painstaking work of identifying and mapping locations of known decommissioned, abandoned, or removed USTs in the public right-of-way. This information will be used by permitting staff in researching areas that may be under review for upcoming construction projects or adjacent development.