Haslam board shifts costs from gas stations to taxpayers

Under Gov. Bill Haslam’s aministration, the Underground Storage Tank and Solid Waste Disposal Control Board has been shifting the financial burden of cleaning up toxic spills at gas stations and truck stops from business owners to taxpayers, http://www.tennessean.com/story/news/environment/2016/08/20/haslam-environmental-changes-shift-cleanup-costs-taxpayers/88906192/.

The 14-member board, 12 of whom are appointed by the governor, sets rules for the $50 million environmental fund overseen by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, or TDEC. The fund has been paying to clean up spills since 1990. It is financed by a combination of a gas tax paid by consumers at the pump and an annual fee paid by owners of petroleum tanks.

Since the board has been reconfigured, members representing consumers have been eliminated.

The board, which retained its four petroleum industry members, has voted in favor of a resolution to increase the state dollars available to private companies for environmental spills caused by failures or accidents from $1 million to $2 million. That became law in 2015.

This year, a new law gives the board the power to give all gas stations and truck stops a big break — suspending their annual fees to the cleanup fund entirely. Some board members have signaled their support for eliminating those fees this year — despite hearing from the man in charge of the state’s underground storage tank program that a “historically high burden of this funding has shifted onto the public.”

Suspending the industry’s financial contributions would leave taxpayers, who haven’t gotten the same breaks as gas stations and truck stops, bearing full financial responsibility for toxic spills.

Tennessee drivers continue to shoulder most of the cost of petroleum spills at Pilot Flying J, Chevron, Exxon and other companies, large and small, through a one-fourth of a cent per gallon gas tax that added up to about $18 million last year. Companies contribute about $2 million in fees each year.

The fund has paid out millions to private petroleum companies since it began operating in 1990, including $10 million to Pilot Flying J, the Haslam family truck stop chain worth an estimated $33 billion. The governor continues to hold an undisclosed financial stake in the company.

A spokeswoman for Haslam noted that the governor took steps to consult with counsel before restructuring the board to ensure there was no conflict of interest. The new structure was proposed by TDEC, said Jennifer Donnals, the spokeswoman.

Even before the reconstitution of the board, members who had been appointed before Haslam took office voted to cut industry fees, Donnals noted.