Forty-three percent of underground fuel storage tanks in South Florida are out of compliance with a state law requiring gas stations and other owners to upgrade their facilities, a South Florida Sun-Sentinel analysis found.

The law approved by the Legislature 18 years ago requires a double-walled system for underground storage tanks by 2009, an upgrade that helps prevent leaks that could contaminate soil and groundwater.

Health and environmental officials say they are concerned that thousands of outmoded storage tanks could pose risks to water quality across the region and state, putting more strain on South Florida’s already stressed water resources.

“This poses a risk for a lot of people,” said Adam Kristol, a specialist in petroleum industry sales with Marcus & Millichap, a real estate investment firm based in Fort Lauderdale. “The state cannot afford to gamble with that.”

The Sun-Sentinel analyzed data collected from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection as of Jan. 28. A totalof 11,168 underground fuel tanks in Florida – out of 26,529 – have not been replaced with the proper systems, data show.

Industry experts said thousands of gas stations could be forced out of business if they fail to meet the Dec. 31, 2009, deadline. Many gas station owners, they said, can’t afford to install the systems, which cost $250,000 to $400,000.

State officials said tank owners who don’t make preparations to begin work by summer could run into trouble because ordering and installing the tanks could take months. Only a limited number – perhaps dozens – of state-certified contractors are qualified to do the work.

Old underground tanks have a single-walled system that doesn’t provide the best protection against leaks. The system required by the law includes a double-walled tank designed to catch fuel leaks before they could contaminate soil and groundwater.

The law was written to protect the environment and the state’s drinking water supplies – 90 percent of which are underground. Fuel is considered a hazardous waste; one gallon can contaminate 1 million gallons of water, according to the environmental organization Sierra Club.

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