In the midst of the lively local restaurants and coffee shops on N 45th Street in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood is a business bearing the logo of a famous multinational corporation.  

State records indicate that discharges from this business have been contaminating the groundwater flowing into Lake Union with benzene, a known carcinogen and fish toxin, at a level more than 360 times the legal limit for at least 10 years. Its vents spew benzene vapors at the window of a neighboring house just 10 feet away and at the tightly packed, expensive homes clustered nearby. Assuming industry averages, 6 million pounds of carbon flows from the business into the atmosphere every year. Could such a business really get away with such copious and hazardous pollution in progressive, environmentally-conscious Seattle? 

The business is the Wallingford Shell gas station, and its pollution is typical of gas stations throughout Seattle. A survey of Seattle gas stations’ environmental records reveals that 74 of 109 gas stations have a documented history of contamination of the soil or groundwater. Forty-eight of those gas stations have single-walled underground gasoline storage tanks installed before 1990 that are past their useful life and at high risk of leaking. The Wallingford Shell’s tanks are single-walled and were installed in 1984.

The problem isn’t confined to the tanks. Gasoline drips and small spills from fueling are a routine occurrence at gas stations, and the spilled gasoline finds its way into stormwater and groundwater. Gasoline vapor leaks while customers pump gas or during tanker truck fuel deliveries are common. A recent study of fuel vapors emitted from gas stations found that benzene levels emitted from underground storage tank vents were at unsafe levels up to 150 meters from a gas station. Roughly half the carbon which Seattle emits passes through its 109 gas stations.

A 50 meter radius from gas station vents brings more than a city block into the contamination zone as this satellite photo shows. (Graphic by author)
Gas station vents can spew dangerous levels of carcinogenic benzene onto residences more than 50 meters away. (Graphic by author)

Should Seattlelites accept such pollution as just another consequence of our addiction to gasoline? No. We can and should stop much of the gas station pollution by strictly enforcing gas station pollution laws already on the books. We should also stop the spread of gas stations by prohibiting the construction of new gas stations citywide because the 109 we have are more than enough. These steps will make our city cleaner and healthier, alleviate our housing problem, and help us achieve our carbon goals.

Seattle's 109 gas stations are spread throughout the city. (Credit: Dragan Milos/Matthew Metz)
Seattle’s 109 gas stations are spread throughout the city, as indicated by the blue icons above. (Graphic by author)

Our state government already has the statutory right to 1) prevent releases of gasoline and other hazardous substances into the air, soil, and water; 2) order cleanups of gas station pollution; and 3) order the polluter to pay for the cleanup. Unfortunately, the state rarely exercises these regulatory powers. Instead, it lets gas stations get away with loosely-enforced voluntary agreements which put the polluters in charge of how and when cleanup occurs. In the case of the Wallingford Shell, Shell Oil Company has evaded its voluntary cleanup obligations for more than 10 years, while the station keeps operating.   

Instead of allowing Shell and other gas stations to kick the cleanup can down the road, the state should enforce cleanup requirements. If polluters won’t or can’t pay for cleanup, the state should close the station, do the cleanup itself, bill the owner for the costs, and lien the land if the bill isn’t paid.

Gas stations often become contaminated sites and enforcement of state environmental law has been lax. (Credit: Dragan Milos/Matthew Metz)
Most gas stations have contaminated the land underneath them.  Enforcement of cleanup laws has been lax. (Credit: Dragan Milos/Matthew Metz)

If the state enforces the law and the pollution is cleaned up, the owner of the gas station property will have a strong incentive to sell the land for another use rather than spend millions to comply with the cost of modern storage tanks, piping, pump, and stormwater systems, and again risking contamination of the cleaned-up site.  

By forcing gas stations to comply with the law, the state can eliminate the enormous subsidy the entire oil industry receives by allowing gas stations to foist their considerable pollution onto neighbors of the gas station and the fish and wildlife affected by the toxins.

Enforced cleanup of gas stations would kill three birds--pollution, the urban land shortage, and carbon emissions--with one stone. (Cartoon by Dragan Milos/Matthew Metz)
Enforced cleanup of gas stations would kill three birds–pollution, the urban land shortage, and carbon emissions–with one stone. (Credit: Dragan Milos/Matthew Metz)

In sum, forcing cleanups and banning new gas stations will result in a triple win–improving public health by eliminating a major source of pollution, shutting off a gushing carbon spigot, and redeploying scarce land for desperately needed housing. It’s time to demand that our state and local government eliminate these widespread threats to our health and our future.

Matthew Metz is co-executive director of Coltura, a Seattle-based nonprofit working to phase out the use of gasoline. 

We hope you loved this article. If so, please consider subscribing or donating. The Urbanist is a non-profit that depends on donations from readers like you.

Matthew Metz (Guest Contributor)

Matthew Metz is the founder and executive director of Coltura. Metz founded Coltura after purchasing his first electric car and wondering why his friends weren't also making the switch. Prior to founding Coltura, Metz founded the Metz Law Group, Jaguar Forest Coffee Company, the Central Area Development Association, and the Central Area Arts Council. He also worked in international development for an NGO in Mexico City. Metz is a graduate of the University of Chicago and UCLA Law School, and is the author of the citizenmetz blog, a blog focusing on the intersection of carbon and culture.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Either enforce existing laws, or change the laws. An unenforced law negates the legitimacy of all laws. Measurable pollution, that has a measurable adverse effect on living things, is clearly something we should not tolerate.

  2. “Roughly half the carbon which Seattle emits passes through its 109 gas stations” – are you including all of the vehicle CO2 emissions in that number? Many of the cars that drive into Seattle every days likely never gas up in the city limits, as gas is usually much cheaper in the suburbs. In the absence of other changes, removing gas stations isn’t going to change city’s the mode share, and if anything it’s going to increase emissions as those who drive spend more time driving to gas stations or idling in line at the few large stations left. If someone in Wallingford is choosing to drive, I don’t see a less convenient gas station changing their calculus.

    Seems to me the better option is to continue to invest to other modes, and as demand for gasoline declines, most small stations will be redeveloped in due course, perhaps with a subsidy to help pay for mitigation (I believe the state already funds this). Simply removing gas stations before we transition to electric cars just screws over the small but important part of our community that depends on SOVs, including many small businesses, some disabled, etc.

    Also, does Shell Oil company own the Wallingford Shell station? Most small gas stations are franchises, usually run by small businesses that operate a handful of stations. Big Oil collects a franchise fee from the stations but has little to do with the operations or legal liability.

    No objection to regulating chemical leaks, particularly if those rules are already on the books.

    • Removing polluting gas stations is one aspect of an overall approach to emissions reduction, but it alone is not sufficient as you rightly point out. It is similar to a city that has drug dealers on every corner—just chasing away the dealers isn’t going to work if people are addicted to drugs. On the other hand, having drug dealers offering drugs on every corner isn’t conducive to addressing demand. Both the supply and demand side of the equation need to be addressed in tandem.

      We are not proposing to remove all gas stations at once, but rather a process where the most polluting and hazardous stations are forced to clean up after fair warning. If they do their cleanup, they can stay in The gas business, although they risk contaminating the ground again. Most stations, once they do the cleanup, will likely convert to another use.

      In the case of the Wallingford Shell, Shell Oil is responsible for the legacy pollution from en they owned the site. A large California corporation owns the land, and a local operator who operates a local chain of stations operates the station.

      It is also important to note that there are strong adverse health consequences for the workers in the gas stations who must breathe high levels of benzene for extended periods.

  3. I personally think it’s a great idea. I need no more proof of that than the fact that I can smell gas stations as I walk by.

    The question is – even in liberal Seattle – will the public be willing to accept paying more at the gas pump and/or having to drive a little bit further to the nearest gas station to make that happen?

  4. This is a great idea. All local jurisdictions should be enforcing pollution laws against polluters, no matter how rich or powerful or connected. I fill up at Costco, which got into the gasoline business only a few years ago, so I assume they have state-of-the-art tanks that don’t leak (yet…)

  5. Fully agree that the state should use the powers they have to force these polluters to stop polluting and clean up. Just want to point out Seattle’s last new freestanding gas station was built in 2000. Several others have likely been built as part of grocery stores since then, though.

Comments are closed.