SEATTLE - Shell Oil Co. has entered an agreement with the state Department of Ecology to clean up contamination at 83 current and former gas stations in Western Washington.
It's the first time an oil company has voluntarily undertaken such a massive cleanup in the state at one time, Ecology officials said.
"That's a very large chunk of contaminated former gas stations ... in one fell swoop," said Larry Altose, an Ecology spokesman. "We hope it's a sign that clears the way in the future to do hundreds of these around the state."
Shell agreed to clean up all of its former and current gas stations that have soil or groundwater contamination in seven Washington counties. The vast majority of those stations are in King County, with a dozen in Snohomish and two in Skagit and Whatcom counties.
Gas stations built before 1998, when upgrades were required, often used bare steel for underground tanks and piping. The single-walled steel tanks corroded over time and leaked, contaminating soil and groundwater, a major source of drinking water.
Cleanup is usually done on a site-by-site basis, but Shell agreed to accelerate its efforts with a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
"We value the communities where we live and work and are committed to meeting environmental standards," Kevin Autin, general manager of retail for Shell Oil Products USA, said in a statement.
There are currently about 6,400 leaking underground storage tanks in Washington.
"With thousands of contaminated sites, to be able to cut away at those numbers in large bites is extremely exciting both economically and environmentally," said Russ Olsen, with the Ecology Department's voluntary cleanup program.
Depending on the site, Shell's cleanup can take anywhere from several months to several years, Olsen said.
In 1984, responding to the potential threat that underground storage tanks posed to the nation's water supply, Congress ordered the EPA to set up a program to remove or replace the tanks to protect against corrosion and leaks.
There are currently 625,000 underground storage tanks nationwide, and a backlog of about 110,000 leaks that will take years to clean up.
Since 1998, gas stations have been required by law to have leak-detection systems, safeguard against leaks and corrosion and undergo regular state inspections.