EPA: Westmont gas station knew about leaks days before fires

An ABC7 I-Team Investigation
CHICAGO (WLS) -- A west suburban gas station that sprung underground leaks causing fires, explosions and evacuations, knew there was a problem five days before state investigators say they traced it back to the facility.

Late Monday afternoon state environmental agency officials referred the case to the Illinois Attorney General for "enforcement action" against the Speedway gas station in Westmont. Illinois Environmental Protection Agency director Alex Messina announced he was stepping up the case against Speedway, after authorities determined that the gas station "had become aware of an issue with loss of product on Monday, October 16."

Speedway "began pumping their product tanks on Thursday, Oct. 19, said state regulators, but apparently still didn't notify authorities.

State officials didn't find out there was a spill problem until Friday Oct. 20.

Speedway executives did not immediately respond to the new information released by state officials.

The ABC7 I-Team also learned on Monday that the Speedway gas station has been previously cited by state regulators for having similar leakage problems.

State of Illinois environmental agency records reveal that a gas station operating at 6241 South Cass Avenue in Westmont had underground leak problems in 1990, 2009 and most recently in 2016. Records also show that the underground tanks were nearing the end of what industry experts say was their safe longevity.

The last two gasoline leaks, in 2009 and 2016, occurred when the station was owned by current owner Speedway.

Last Friday morning gas from Speedway station underground tanks drained into the local sewer system. That spill caused explosions, fires and several flash-overs at more than ten separate locations. Gasoline fumes from the sewer system were apparent in homes and apartments miles away and several buildings had to be evacuated. A wall was blown open in the Willowbrook apartment where 80-year old Margaret Rice lived, and she was injured and hospitalized in the burn unit at Loyola hospital.

"Her hair was singed, she had burns on her arms. It was pretty devastating," said Knolls Condominium resident David Dalporto. "I got the fire extinguisher from the laundry room which had been blown apart, went in there, put out the fire in her apartment and I continued to get her out of there, carried her out."

Leaking underground storage tanks are a major environmental and safety problem across the U.S. Illinois is one of the worse states in the nation for gas tank leaks. Since 1984 there have been more than 28,000 leak incidents in Illinois, according to Illinois Environmental Protection Agency records obtained by the I-Team.

Currently Illinois has more than 5,700 leaking tanks according to EPA records, and government agencies have been struggling to keep up with the remediation. Only Florida and Michigan have more reported leaking underground tanks.

There are six underground tanks underneath the Speedway gas station in Westmont. It is not known whether the tank or tanks that leaked last week were among those previously found by authorities.

Gasoline storage tanks have a 30-year life expectancy, according to industry experts, who say the tanks must be replaced by that age. The Westmont gas station tanks were installed in 1989.
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