Thoughts from the National Tanks Conference

October 3, 2013


(Note: I started writing this article before the government shut down Oct. 1 and I’m finishing it while the folks I’m writing about are out of work and their offices shut down. I hope this will be corrected shortly but meanwhile I’m hoping for the best.)

Recently I had the good fortune of attending the National Tanks Conference and Expo in Denver Colorado September 16-18, 2013. For those who live and breathe UST systems, it’s a dream come true: all major policy makers, regulators, inspectors, owners, technicians and vendors of UST systems under one roof for three days. I’ve attended this show every year since 1996 when I gave my first national talk in Charlotte, NC about why states needed to develop UST web pages for improving technical assistance, which of course in retrospect sounds quaint and slightly absurd but there you have it. Hindsight is 20-20. The conference host NEIWPCC even posted pictures on Flickr. Check it out!

Having crawled into my first tank excavation pit in Vermont in 1986 with a PID gas sniffer, I’ve seen this industry mature into a program for which I’m proud to be a part. We no longer have thousands of sites with feet and and feet of free product on the groundwater. Many sites are now double-walled and tank gauges have replaced most sticks. Backlogs of contaminated sites are being shortened as more clean ups are completed. And lo: operator training has taken hold in most states and we hope to see fewer operator-driven leaks in the coming years.

But problems still persist, many in the realm of the not-so obvious. Suspected release signals are still met with blank stares; neglected sumps are still full of fluid; more metal than ever is under attack from corrosion and alternative fuels seem to be playing a major part. We seem to tackle a few essential problems in our quest to prevent leaking USTs  —and just as we do– another crop of problems show up. I know we’ve made tremendous headway but when you get the nation’s UST leaders together and everyone lays it out on the table, it seems like we still have so far to go…

OneIMG_5106 thing that keeps me going is what the nation’s top tank regulator Carolyn Hoskinson smartly coined the “family reunion” element of the national conference. If you don’t know it, the national UST community is very tightly networked and effective, due in large part because of this conference. And for those who don’t know Carolyn, she’s the Director of the Office of Underground Storage Tanks (OUST) in Washington DC, which means she’s in charge of the nation’s UST program. Carolyn offered during her keynote speech to buy a drink that night for anyone in the audience who had been around since 1988 to pick their brain on how to make the national program better. So for the price of a free drink I got to hang out with Carolyn and a number of other old timers (many friends) and toss around idea, both grand and simple, to advance the collective cause. Ideas ranged from everything from completely eliminating state funds to tightening leak detection tolerances and about everything in between. I of course, being the champion of the human interaction of USTs, wanted to see better standards that govern operator training so people actually gained risk awareness, not just a certificate of completion based on a passing exam score.

After going to these national venues for 17 years (yikes), I really feel like I’m part of larger purpose to make the world a tad better place to live in. Cleaner air, water and soil all happen because enough of us get together to share our experiences, our stories, and our wish to continue to improve the world of UST management. Rumor has it that this was the last national conference due to budget concerns and now that Carolyn and all her staff across the nation or sitting home unpaid, who knows what will happen next?

If you attended the Tank Conference this year, please share my highlights you experienced. Or low points if that was the case.

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  1. What a fantastic article to read on the first day the federal government re-opened! Thanks Ben. Missed everyone over the last few weeks. Warms my heart to read all the good things people have sent to me about how valuable the Tanks Conference is to them. Keep ’em coming. OUST and our co-sponsors will use what you send us to advocate for permission to host future conferences. And thanks to everyone who took me up on my offer and joined me after hours, and throughout the conference, to gift me with your thoughts and ideas. Hope to see you all again soon! – Carolyn

  2. Lamar Bradley says:

    Ben, I think you nailed it and I couldn’t agree more. We have made tremendous progress in the years since 1988 and I have been a part of UST since that time as well. We are seeing problems today that we didn’t know about 20 years ago, 10 years ago, or even 5 years ago. Much state program success has been due to networking and sharing that occurs at the National Tanks Conference. Successes are shared, ideas are born, pitfalls and problems are spotlighted, and communication and understanding is enhanced. I cannot imagine how much success that state programs have enjoyed in the last 25 years could be attributed to the NTC, and I would hate to think that the sole venue that exists to get everyone “under one roof” as you put it, will be a thing of the past. Future problems facing UST programs will require just as much effort to solve as those solved in the last 25 years because the problems are more challenging and complex than before. From my perspective, I will not be in the UST program for the next 25 years, but many of your readers will be. I hope they are not denied the advantages we enjoyed from the benefits of having the NTC. I thought the 2013 NTC was one of the best of the many I have attended and I know holding National conferences is expensive, but so is the cost of cleaning up the environment. If ideas learned and implemented from a session at the NTC prevent even a few releases in state programs, then that savings will offset the cost of putting on a National Tanks Conference.

  3. Ben,

    Actually, your comments in 1996 are neither quaint or absurd. Nor should they be attributed to hindsight.

    Your comments were prescient and demonstrated foresight concerning the need to be “customer focused.” It was, and still is the owners and operators who bare the burden of compliance with regulations – Not to mention the costs of cleaning up environmental contamination.

    Consequently, you comments back in 1996 demonstrated a recognition of the truth that success in compliance begins first with educating the customer about the basics – The simple requirements of the rules and regulations.

    Although that may have been a simple requirement as we all know it proved to be anything but simple to accomplish. Getting the customer to appreciate the monetary, as well as moral value to managing UST systems has, and continues to be a challenge.

    Over the years the regulatory community has continued to improve on that basic truth, and you have played a crucial part in helping the community improve its focus on the needs of the customer – the UST owner/operator.