The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is not fooling around. The agency has made it clear that it will not extend the deadline for replacing, repairing, or upgrading tanks beyond December 22, 1998. The Agency is equally adamant about states fining those fleets -- up to $10,000 per day per tank -- that haven't been paying attention to the deadline, which was established nine years ago.

Although some states have set earlier deadlines, no state has the legal authority to extend the deadline.

Most storage tanks (those installed prior to 1988) were constructed of bare steel and have corroded with time, according to the EPA. This allows oil, gasoline, and other petroleum-based fluids to discharge into the environment. The crucial issue is that the fluids contaminate groundwater, the source of drinking water for nearly half of all Americans.

The new underground storage tank requirements call for corrosion-protected tanks and piping systems, an early-release detection system, and spill and overflow devices.

How big is the problem? According to the EPA, there are about 1-million active underground storage tanks in the United States that must be upgraded, removed, or replaced in accordance with the law. About half of these are owned by retail gas stations and convenience stores; the rest are located at commercial fleet facilities, state and local government fueling facilities, and other non-petroleum marketers.

Fleet owners could be responsible for making sure that almost a half-million tanks are in compliance, at costs ranging from $75,000 to $120,000 per job.

They are also responsible for cleaning up any spills that were discovered when tanks were dug up. So far, the EPA estimates that 178,300 cleanups have been completed -- and the work doesn't come cheap. The average cost of cleaning up a contaminated site is $125,000. If the contamination has reached the groundwater, it can cost over $1 million.

For some fleets, state financial assistance is available for upgrades and environmental cleanup. About 47 states have trust funds earmarked for underground storage tanks. States have total outstanding claims of $2.32 billion, with annual revenues and current balance totaling $2.655 billion.

Unfortunately, many of the individual states' funds are depleted, the money already spent by fleets that were smart enough to get in line early. For example, Alaska has $51 million in claims and only $9 million in its fund, according to a national survey conducted by the Vermont Dept. of Environmental Conservation. Likewise, California has $900 million in claims and only $110 million in its fund. (States usually have an ongoing income stream, however, that helps offset claims somewhat.)

Pennsylvania appears in good shape, with $51.6 million in claims and more than $283 million in available funds.

Some fleets report that even if funds are available, it can be difficult to acquire them. "It's like pulling teeth in some states," says Bob Zimmerman, manager-environmental services, for Roadway Express in Akron, Ohio. "We've had good luck in some states while others are broke or just make it difficult."

Zimmerman notes that Roadway hasn't completed its tank upgrading, but is very close. "Not 100%, but closing in," he says. Roadway has removed 80 tanks in 15 locations. Beyond the environmental benefits, the new law often gives the company an opportunity to rethink their tank needs. "We're going back with 40 tanks instead of 80," says Zimmerman. The new configuration will make the company more efficient.

Unfortunately, some fleets are reporting profiteering by tank companies as the deadline approaches. One fleet operator, who asked that his name not be used, said that he should have had work done on his tanks last year instead of waiting until 1998. "The estimate for the job now is 25% higher than last year. They're taking advantage of our situation."

Other fleets report that while they have not encountered profiteering, they've run into trouble finding tank companies to make needed repairs and upgrades because of their increased workload. State environmental agencies have expressed concern that some tank companies may be taking on jobs they are unqualified to handle.

Debbie Rutherford, an EPA researcher, says that while gas stations got the word early, many fleets are coming late to the game. "Fleets may not be in the loop, and state officials are focusing on their tanks."

Do it better When it comes to motor carrier safety, the feds need to do a better job of selecting fleets for compliance with federal safety regulations. That's the word from the GAO. The agency said that because of the varied factors used in determining a fleet's "prior safety history," using this as a criteria is not effective. Nearly two-thirds of the carriers selected for safety reviews had no recordable accidents in the previous 12 months.

Not so fast Imposing additional fees on trucks for the social costs of using the nation's highways -- traffic congestion, air pollution, and noise --would raise transportation rates sufficiently to discourage valuable investments in improving productivity and technology, according to a study conducted for the ATA Foundation.

Border traffic U.S. Customs proposals that would allow port directors to divert trucks to other border crossings would restrict crossborder freight transportation between the U.S. and Mexico and Canada; increase truck congestion; and raise trucking costs. The proposed rules, which give ports no guidelines to making those decisions, are being challenged by trucking groups who would rather see additional resources and new technologies put in place.

OSHA enforcement In an effort to focus limited enforcement resources on businesses that have the highest rates of lost-workday injuries, OSHA announced a cooperative compliance program. Businesses with the highest rates, including an estimated 400 trucking companies, will not be eligible. Instead, they will be placed on a primary list for comprehensive inspections. Those firms with moderate injury rates will be eligible to participate in the program provided they agree to a comprehensive safety program.

New level set at 10%; drug testing unchanged

In a move hailed by the trucking industry, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has lowered the random alcohol testing rate for 1998, requiring motor carriers to test only 10% of their drivers. Previously, trucking fleets had to randomly test 25% of their drivers for alcohol.

The agency said the reduction was justified after just 0.14% of drivers tested positive for alcohol in 1995 and 0.18% in 1996. Because the violation rate was below 0.5% for two consecutive years, the FHWA had authority to reduce the rates. If the rates rise above that level this year, look for the agency to increase the testing rate once again.

The action does not affect random testing for drugs, which remains at 50%. FHWA found 2.6% of workers tested positive for drugs in 1994, 2.8% in 1995, and 2.2% in 1996. The rate must remain below 1% for two consecutive years before FHWA can reduce the selection and testing rate to 25%.

"The FHWA does not believe reducing the random alcohol testing rate to 10% will diminish the safe operation of commercial motor vehicles," the agency said in the January 13 notice. "First, the rates show the motor carrier industry already has a very low alcohol violation rate. The FHWA's data indicates the motor carrier industry is achieving about 99.8% alcohol-free drivers."

In addition, an FHWA analysis shows that truck drivers involved in fatal crashes do not have a significant problem with alcohol. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 1.4% of the drivers of large trucks involved in fatal crashes in 1996 were intoxicated. Intoxication rates for drivers of passenger cars, light trucks, and motorcycles were 18.8%, 21.9%, and 30.3%, respectively. "Rates for these other drivers are 13 to 21 times higher than the intoxication rate for drivers of large trucks," FHWA said.

The percentage of intoxicated truck drivers involved in fatal crashes has fallen over the last ten years. NHTSA's data for 1987 showed 2.7% of truck drivers involved in fatal crashes were intoxicated, compared to 1.4% in 1996, a 52% decline.

Under federal law, drivers of commercial vehicles with blood-alcohol concentrations of 0.04% or greater, or who refuse to test for alcohol, can lose their commercial driver's licenses.

Meritor Automotive Inc. has appointed Prakash R. Mulchandani president of its Heavy Vehicle Systems (HVS) operation.

Mulchandani, who will report directly to Meritor chairman & CEO Larry Yost, will also retain his previous responsibilities for the HVS Worldwide Truck & Trailer Systems business.

"Prakash's experience in the industry, solid business background, and dedicated approach make him the ideal choice to head HVS," said Yost. He noted that Mulchandani "played a key role" in securing record sales of $2 billion for the HVS business in 1997.

Mulchandani joined the company in 1974. He has since served in progressively more responsible financial and operational management positions. In 1994, he was named president of the manufacturer's former North American Truck Systems business.