A massive backlog of environmental cleanup claims is rising with no end in sight because of a Beacon Hill budget raid on a fee paid by Massachusetts motorists and meant to remediate leaking fuel tanks.
“It's been one of the most successful environmental programs that the state has had in almost thirty years,” Rep. George Peterson, R-Grafton said. “(But) it’s being diverted to some degree.”
The fee, currently two-and-a-half cents per gallon of gasoline, was intended to be used to reimburse gas station owners for cleaning up leaking underground fuel tanks. Remediating underground plumes of fuel can be expensive, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, but is considered crucial to protecting water supplies.
Ever since 1992, motorists have been paying this fee, which originally went directly to a special fund dedicated only to reimbursing gas station owners.
“It's done a tremendous amount of gas station cleanups where you've had leaky, faulty tanks or oil tanks, which are a serious threat to wells,” Peterson said.
The fee was initially a half-cent per gallon. But there wasn't enough money to pay for all the cleanups, so in 2003, then-Governor Mitt Romney pushed to increase the fee by another two cents, a 400 percent increase, that generated about $60 million more every year, nearly $80 million in annually.
The cleanup program should have been flush with cash. But then something funny happened.
“It’s literally just a couple of weeks and the fund gets wiped out?” Fox 25’s Beaudet asked.
“Yes,” replied Stephen Dodge, a member of the Underground Storage Tank Fund board.
Dodge, who represents the Massachusetts Petroleum Council on the board, says that two weeks after Romney asked for the fee increase, he raided the fund by eliminating it.
Ever since then, the tens of millions of dollars collected at the pumps goes directly into the general fund for lawmakers to spend however they please.
“Seems like a back-door tax increase?” Fox 25’s Beaudet asked.
“Yes,” Dodge replied. “We refer to it, not to be political, but quite frankly we refer to it as the hidden Romney gas tax increase.”
Now, it's up lawmakers to decide how much money actually goes to the cleanups. This year, that’s just $13 million. The state keeps the rest.
The result is a growing backlog of gas stations waiting for their cleanup money.
“We will end this fiscal year coming up with $30 million worth of unpaid claims. That's $30 million dollars that gasoline station owners…will not get back, at least for the foreseeable future,” Dodge said.
And that backlog is having an effect on the environment, said Dodge.
“I think that the unintended consequence is that it really has a dampening effect on environmental cleanups,” he said.
Becky Smith of Clean Water Action in Massachusetts says these cleanups are “absolutely” important for the environment because some of these leaking tanks are dangerously close to drinking water supplies.
“All water is connected,” Smith said. “Anytime there's a pollutant in the path of that groundwater, there is a risk involved.”
But apparently that risk isn't big enough to catch Beacon Hill’s attention.
Next year, the governor, House and Senate are all proposing spending about $13 million to clean up underground storage tank leaks, meaning the state would keep about $60 million for other purposes.
Rep. Peterson says there’s not much appetite to change things.
“Not at this point in time. Sad to say,” he said.
Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration sent a statement which noted the current fiscal crisis did not address the fact that most of the millions collected under the guise of improving the environment are paying for things other than gas station cleanups.
In the statement, the governor’s top budget advisor, Secretary of Administration & Finance Jay Gonzalez, acknowledged the backlog of gas station owners still waiting to be reimbursed by the state, saying, “We understand the impact this has and we are currently prioritizing the processing of claims for small business claimants. Approved claims are an important obligation of the Commonwealth.”
Gonzalez also said in the statement that “(W)e will work with the Legislature to facilitate payment as quickly as possible….(And) to process additional claims that have been received and that have been awaiting approval...."
As for that extra two cents-per-gallon fee added when Romney was governor, it was supposed to be rolled back as soon as the backlog was taken care of.
Considering the backlog is bigger than ever, don’t expect a break at the pump any time soon.
Rep. Peterson has tried repeatedly to re-establish the cleanup fund, which would mean the Legislature doesn’t have the ability to decide how the money is spent, but that bill has gotten nowhere. Peterson says he’s going to try again during the Legislature’s next session.