Illinois budget crisis affecting gas station cleanup


By John O’Connor ,AP

SPRINGFIELD, Illinois — U.S. federal regulators have warned Illinois to resume paying companies that wrench leaky fuel tanks from the ground or be forced to tell gas station operators they have to pay, according to a letter obtained by The Associated Press.

It’s another potentially crippling consequence of the state’s 10-month budget stalemate, which makes the US$58 million set aside to pay for cleanup inaccessible. The letter, dated March 21 and sent by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s regional director in Chicago, demands the Illinois EPA deliver a plan to free up the cash for scrubbing contaminated sites.

Companies in charge of yanking tanks said the work has slowed since the state can’t touch the Leaking Underground Storage Tank (LUST) Fund — financed by an at-the-pump gas tax and a fuel-delivery fee. One consultant in northern Illinois told the AP, “Cleanup is not being done.”

But the state EPA, which has until April 21 to respond, counters that this isn’t the first tank-fund payment backlog and there is sufficient money to pay the US$20.3 million in submitted bills. Without reimbursement, contractors that pull leaking tanks and replace contaminated soil would have to find alternate financing — likely from costly insurance policies that would be required of gas station owners no longer covered by the state fund.

“The state budget impasse has impacted the fund by halting reimbursements for remediation of LUST sites for the past eight months,” Robert Kaplan, the federal EPA’s acting regional administrator, wrote in the letter, adding that it “compromises the financial viability of the cleanup contractors that are critical to ongoing cleanups.”

But work continues on 211 gas-contaminated sites around the state, according to documents released to the AP under the Freedom of Information Act. However, the majority of contractors on the ongoing jobs haven’t sought payment and state EPA spokeswoman Kim Biggs said there’s no way to estimate how much it will cost.

The federal agency also questioned diverting US$20 million from the fund as part of the US$1.3 billion budget deal that Republican Governor Bruce Rauner and Democrats in the Legislature struck to balance the ledger for the 2014-2015 fiscal year. The two sides continue to wrangle over a spending plan that should have taken effect July 1.