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Audit finds storage tanks overdue for inspection

Underground storage tanks.
Underground storage tanks.

State regulators need to do a better job of inspecting Michigan’s regulated aboveground and underground storage tanks on time.

That’s among the findings in a report released Friday from the state Auditor General. It deemed the state’s inspection efforts “sufficient, with exceptions.”

The audit reviewed a 2.5-year period from October 2018 through April 2021. During that time, it observed more than 6,000 storage tanks were overdue for an inspection.

Michigan State Fire Marshal Kevin Sehlmeyer said part of the inspection backlog is due to staff retirements and the time it takes to bring on replacements.

“The process to train a tanks inspector is about a four to six months process before we can get them out on the street.” Sehlmeyer said. “We’re authorized for 17 full time inspectors. We currently have 14 and we have two in training right now.”

The storage tanks hold flammable materials like compressed gas, liquefied petroleum gas, and other potential hazards. The state typically checks up on them every three years.

Despite the number of tanks overdue for inspection, Sehlmeyer said there haven’t been any related incidents so far.

“Even some of the—if you want to say, the leaks, that have occurred in the last few years, those facilities were current at the time,” Sehlmeyer said.

Some groups, however, are concerned about the potential for danger when inspections don’t occur on time.

“Over time, if the tanks are missed or they’re not properly inspected, they absolutely can leak. Or, in a rare occurrence, there could be an emergency moment explosion or some kind of major leak that then creates a contaminated site,” Nicholas Occhipinti, government affairs director with the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, said.

The audit lists 2,457 facilities holding the tanks due for inspection, as of May 1, 2021. According to Sehlmeyer, the backlog is down to 1,960 as the state catches up.

“While we have a backlog right now, we are continuing to keep up on that cadence of visiting these sites at least every three years with the idea that we want to identify if there’s things that are through use or need updating,” he said.

Occhipinti said he’s happy the state is taking the issue seriously.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, right? And the first thing we can do is better enforce those [rules] you have in place and, given the last two years of the challenges of having to deal with COVID, we recognize that onsite inspections were probably particularly hard,” Occhipinti said.

The audit also found issues with delayed re-inspections and other follow up at storage facilities where violations had been found. It lists preliminary response from the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA) as reviewing and updating procedures to address those issues.

One thing both Occhipinti and Sehlmeyer said could help is resources from the Legislature.

Sehlmeyer said there are plans to ask lawmakers to help join in partnerships to help fill positions with qualified candidates.

“LARA will make a list of current statutory changes that may be needed to address these in the backlog and then overall to improve our storage tanks program,” he said.

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