Environmental Liability

Tight Rules and Low Funding Challenge Tank Operators

Operators of underground storage tanks favor broad pollution liability and tank-only coverage over surety.
By: | February 20, 2017 • 7 min read

Late last year, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker made almost $100 million in mid-year budget cuts to fill an anticipated shortfall. Of that, he cut $3 million from the program that maintains and inspects underground storage tanks (USTs) for hydrocarbons. The cut was just 3 percent above the overall budget reduction, but as the UST program was only $10 million to start, the cut is a substantial 30 percent of the funding.

Moreover, the timing could hardly be worse: The state mandated that all single-wall tanks be removed by Aug. 7. The actual removal process is only a matter of a few days for most tanks, but contractors must be booked in advance and digging is difficult in frozen ground, so the window for work is only four or five months. Also, double-walled regulatory-compliant replacement tanks must be ordered well in advance from fabricators.

And so it goes around the country. Many states are tightening rules on USTs, and some have reduced the pools of money set aside for remediation. That has thrown operators of all sizes back into the risk-transfer market. Some can put up surety bonds, but more and more are buying insurance-like limited tank-only coverage, or adding tank endorsements to their pollution legal liability (PLL) covers.

UST Coverage Trends

There are about a half-million USTs registered with the Environmental Protection Agency. That translates to an insurance market estimated to be $50 million to 60 million in annual premium, according to underwriters and brokers.

Chubb is one of the major carriers, having increased its share through its merger with ACE. Liberty and AIG are also said to have a presence, among others. Brokers report some turnover among carriers, with Zurich having left the segment in 2012.

“There are three ways to certify financial responsibility,” said Gerry Rojewski, senior vice president and chief underwriting officer for Chubb Environmental. “You can self insure. Or you can rely on state funds. Or you can purchase risk transfer.”

“Not surprisingly, the older tanks had higher rates of failure, but there are lots of variables. Larger operations have more assets to cover, but may be a better risk because they have more resources.”    — Gerry Rojewski, senior vice president, chief underwriting officer, Chubb Environmental

The decision varies with the size of the owner’s operation and the number and age of tanks. “Some owners go through agents and some go direct to the market,” said Chris Smy, environmental practice leader at Marsh. “Our clients run the gamut from a hotel that has a backup generator and a small UST for diesel fuel, to large energy companies with many tanks. The business is not just what you might think of, like a retail gas station. It could be anyone.”

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Even in states that have funds, there are complications.

“State funds have dried up or faced delays in reimbursement,” said Jeffrey Hanneman, managing director at Aon Risk Services Southwest. “Texas and Florida, for example, no longer have state funds. Even in California, which does have a fund, there is a priority for reimbursing in order inverse to size. It is impossible to know if or when an operator will recoup UST expenses or how much. We have some clients who do not ever anticipate recouping.”

As a result of that smallest-first preference, Hanneman said, Aon’s customers tend to be larger operators in contrast to the mom-and-pop retail service centers.

The biggest challenge for USTs is age, said Rojewski.

Gerry Rojewski, senior vice president, chief underwriting officer, Chubb Environmental

“In some cases, the owner/operator may try to keep a UST in service beyond its designed lifecycle of 30 years. Replacing a UST can be a significant investment. Not all owner/operators feel the need to replace the tank at this line of demarcation especially if tightness testing results are positive.”

Rojewski added that Chubb conducted a predictive modeling study on tank exposures. The results showed that the older tanks had a higher probability of leaking, he said, but the study also revealed a host of other variables.

“Large operations with higher exposures versus small operations with less complex risk present a different set of characteristics for an insurance carrier,” he said.

“Larger risks may have more assets and may develop more comprehensive risk management programs as opposed to a smaller company, which may not have those types of resources available.”

Rojewski said that Chubb “has the ability to write tank insurance through an online portal called Tanksafe, or through our underwriting team based in Philadelphia, which can work with clients and brokers.”

Smy at Marsh suggested that the current trend within UST coverage is to broaden pollution policies with tank endorsements.

“Other clients are electing to go with above-ground tanks when they replace USTs,” he added. “And still others that have pollution liability feel comfortable retaining the risk for their tanks. In such cases where regulations mandate a demonstrated financial assurance, most owners make the choice to go with risk transfer by insurance.”

To that point, Smy stressed that broad pollution covers “are not a catch-all for USTs. They have to be scheduled. The only tanks covered without a schedule are so-called phantom tanks, ones that are not known until found.”

Challenges with Aging Tanks

Chris Smy, environmental practice leader, Marsh

Brokers say that while the sector is stable, and even has some growth potential as state funding dwindles, there are challenges.

“The longer you go insuring, the more likely you are to have to pay out,” says Smy.

“Carriers are pushing back on covering tanks of a certain age regardless of whether or not they have passed tests. There is just less and less appetite for aging tanks. Operators are going to have to start replacing them.”

Testing is part of all state regulatory requirements.

“Even self-insureds have to pass their tank tests,” said Hanneman at Aon.

He added that there are tanks that can pass the structural test, but small operators that struggle to demonstrate financial responsibility, and also the reverse.

“Because there is a strong correlation between age and loss, owners have to test every year. And most underwriters want to see those integrity test results. The age and condition of tanks, or anticipated replacement costs, are often figured into the price of any sale of assets.”

It bears mentioning that while most retail fuel operations have national brand names, only about 3 percent of the gas stations are actually owned by the big oil companies.

The other 97 percent are owned either by the operator, or are franchises of a regional or national chain. There is a slow but steady cycle of stations being sold both to and from larger and smaller owners.

“Most policies have a $1 million limit with $2 million aggregate,” said Hanneman. “A simple leak cleanup will run in that range, $1 million to $2 million. If the leak gets into the ground water it can be more.”

Given that oil floats on water, the water table in the region and the permeability of soil are big factors. That is why southern states tend to see more spill migration than do northern states, even with their freeze-thaw cycles.

Research from the EPA also implicates metal corrosion as a growing problem with USTs. A 2016 study of 42 operational diesel tanks concluded that 35 of them, or 83 percent, exhibited moderate or severe corrosion.

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While this can lead to vapors escaping into the surrounding soil, corrosion can also lead to equipment failure, including the failure of release and detection systems. While the issue is not widespread among non-diesel tanks, the likelihood of corrosion increases with age and presents another factor to consider.

Brokers also note that larger clients tend to keep tanks on their policies even after sites have been sold. For them the incremental costs of a few more tanks on the schedule is not daunting.

And even though buyers become owners with full responsibility, with indemnification for sellers, that does not stop lawsuits from being filed if current owners go bankrupt and lawyers follow the deed back. &

Gregory DL Morris is an independent business journalist based in New York with 25 years’ experience in industry, energy, finance and transportation. He can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Black Swan: EMP

Chaos From Above

An electromagnetic pulse event triggered by the detonation of a low-yield nuclear device in Earth’s atmosphere triggers economic and societal chaos.
By: | July 27, 2017 • 9 min read

Scenario

The vessel that seeks to undo America arrives in the teeth of a storm.

The 4,000-ton Indonesian freighter Pandawas Viper sails towards California in December 2017. It is shepherded toward North America by a fierce Pacific winter storm, a so-called “Pineapple Express,” boasting 15-foot waves and winds topping 70 mph.

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Normally, Pandawas Viper carries cargo containers. This time she harbors a much more potent payload.

Unbeknownst to U.S. defense and intelligence officials, the Viper carries a single nuclear weapon, loaded onto a naval surface-to-air missile, or SAM, concealed below deck.

The warhead has an involved history. It was smuggled out of Kyrgyzstan in 1997, eventually finding its way into the hands of Islamic militants in Indonesia that are loosely affiliated with ISIS.

Even for these ambitious and murderous militants, outfitting a freighter with a nuclear device in secrecy and equipping it to sail to North America in the hopes of firing its deadly payload is quite an undertaking.

Close to $2 million in bribes and other considerations are paid out to ensure that the Pandawas Viper sets sail for America unmolested, her cargo a secret held by less than two dozen extremist Islamic soldiers.

The storm is a perfect cover.

Officials along the West Coast busy themselves tracking the storm, doing what they think is the right thing by warning residents about flooding and landslides, and securing ports against storm-related damage.

No one gives a second thought to the freighter flying Indonesian colors making its way toward the Port of Long Beach, as it apparently should be.

It’s only at two in the morning on Sunday, December 22, that an alert Port of San Diego administrator charged with monitoring ocean-going cargo traffic sees something that causes him to do a double take.

GPS tracking information indicates to him that the Pandawas Viper is not heading to Long Beach, as indicated on its digital shipping logs, but is veering toward Baja, Calif.

Were it to keep its present course, it would arrive at Tijuana, Mexico.

The port administrator dutifully notifies the U.S. Coast Guard.

“Indonesian freighter Pandawas Viper off course, possibly storm-related navigational difficulties,” he emails on a secure digital communication channel operated by the port and the Coast Guard.

“Monitor and alert as necessary,” his message, including the ship’s current coordinates, concludes.

In turn, a communications officer in the Coast Guard’s Alameda, Calif. offices dutifully alerts members of the Coast Guard’s Pacific basin security team. She’s done her job but she’s about an hour late.

At 3:15 am Pacific time on December 22, the deck on the Pandawas Viper opens and the naval surface-to-air missile, operated remotely by a militant operative in Jakarta, is let loose.

It’s headed not for Los Angeles or San Diego, but rather Earth’s atmosphere, where it detonates about 50 miles above the surface.

There it interacts with the planet’s atmosphere, ionosphere and magnetic field to produce an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, which radiates down to Earth, creating additional electric or ground-induced currents.

The operative’s aim is perfect. With a charge of hundreds and in some cases thousands of volts, the GICs cause severe physical damage to all unprotected electronics and transformers. Microchips operate in the range of 1.5 to 5 volts and thus are obliterated by the billions.

As a result, the current created by the blast knocks out 70 percent of the nation’s grid. What began as an overhead flash of light plunges much of the nation into darkness.

The first indication for most people that there is a problem is that their trusty cellphones can do no more than perform calculations, tell them the time or play their favorite tunes.

As minutes turn to hours, however, people realize that they’ve got much bigger concerns on their hands. Critical infrastructure for transportation and communications ceases. Telecommunication breakdowns mean that fire and police services are unreachable.

For the alone, the elderly and the otherwise vulnerable, panic sets in quickly.

Hospital administrators feverishly calculate how long their emergency power supplies can last.

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Supermarkets and other retailers anticipating one of their biggest shopping days of the year on that Monday, December 23, instead wake up to cold homes and chilling prospects.

Grocery stores with their electricity cut off are unable to open and product losses begin to mount. Banks don’t open. Cash machines are inoperable.

In the colder parts of the United States, the race to stay warm is on.  Within a day’s time in some poorer neighborhoods, furniture is broken up and ignited for kindling.

As a result, fires break out, fires that in many cases will not draw a response from firefighting crews due to the communication breakdown.

As days of interruption turn into weeks and months, starvation, rioting and disease take many.

Say good-bye to most of the commercial property/casualty insurance companies that you know. The resulting chaos adds up to more than $1 trillion in economic losses. Property, liability, credit, marine, space and aviation insurers fail in droves.

Assume widespread catastrophic transformer damage, long-term blackouts, lengthy restoration times and chronic shortages. It will take four to 10 years for a full recovery.

The crew which launched the naval surface-to-air missile that resulted in all of this chaos makes a clean getaway. All seven that were aboard the Pandawas Viper make their way to Ensenada, Mexico, about 85 miles south of San Diego via high-speed hovercraft.

Those that bankrolled this deadly trip were Muslim extremists. But this boat crew knows no religion other than gold.

Well-paid by their suppliers, they enjoy several rounds of the finest tequila Ensenada can offer, and a few other diversions, before slipping away to Chile, never to be brought to justice.

Observations

This outcome does not spring from the realm of fiction.

In May, 1999, during the NATO bombing of the former Yugoslavia, high-ranking Russian officials meeting with a U.S. delegation to discuss the Balkans conflict raised the notion of an EMP attack that would paralyze the United States.

That’s according to a report of a commission to assess the threat to the United States from an EMP attack, which was submitted to the U.S. Congress in 2004. But Russia is not alone in this threat or in this capability.

Wes Dupont, vice president and general counsel, Allied World Assurance Company

North Korea also has the capability and the desire, according to experts, and there is speculation that recent rocket launches by that country are dress rehearsals to detonate a nuclear device in our atmosphere and carry out an EMP attack on the United States.

The first defense against such an attack is our missile defense. But some experts believe this country is ill-equipped to defend against this sort of scenario.

“In terms of risk mitigation, if an event like this happens, then that means the best risk mitigation we have has already failed, which would be our military defense systems, because the terrorists have already launched their weapon, and it’s already exploded,” said Wes Dupont, a vice president and general counsel with the Allied World Assurance Company.

The U.S power grid is relatively unprotected against EMP blasts, Dupont said.

And a nuclear blast is the worst that can occur. There isn’t much mitigation that’s been done because many methods are unproven, and it’s expensive, he added.

Lloyd’s and others have studied coronal mass ejections, solar superstorms that would produce a magnetic field that could enter our atmosphere and wipe out our grid.  Scientists believe that an EMP attack would carry a force far greater than any coronal mass ejection that has ever been measured.

An extended blackout, with some facilities taking years to return to full functionality, is a scenario that no society on earth is ready for.

“Traditional scenarios only assume blackouts for a few days and losses seem to be moderate …” wrote executives with Allianz in a 2011 paper outlining risk management options for power blackout risks.

“If an event like this happens, then that means the best risk mitigation we have has already failed … because the terrorists have already launched their weapon, and it’s already exploded.” — Wes Dupont, vice president and general counsel, Allied World Assurance Company

“But if we are considering longer-lasting blackouts, which are most likely from space weather or coordinated cyber or terrorist attacks, the impacts to our society and economy might be significant,” the Allianz executives wrote.

“Critical infrastructure such as communication and transport would be hampered,” the Allianz executives wrote.

“The heating and water supply would stop, and production processes and trading would cease. Emergency services like fire, police or ambulance could not be called due to the breakdown of the telecommunications systems. Hospitals would only be able to work as long as the emergency power supply is supplied with fuel. Financial trading, cash machines and supermarkets in turn would have to close down, which would ultimately cause a catastrophic scenario,” according to Allianz.

It would cost tens of billions to harden utility towers in this country so that they wouldn’t be rendered inoperable by ground-induced currents. That may seem like a lot of money, but it’s really not when we think about the trillion dollars or more in damages that could result from an EMP attack, not to mention the loss of life.

Allianz estimates that when a blackout is underway, financial trading institutions, for example, suffer losses of more than $6 million an hour; telecommunications companies lose about $30,000 per minute, according to the Allianz analysis.

Insurers, of course, would be buffeted should a rogue actor pull off this attack.

Lou Gritzo, vice president and manager of research, FM Global

“Depending on the industries and the locations that are affected, it could really change the marketplace, insurers and reinsurers as well,” said Lou Gritzo, a vice president and manager of research at FM Global.

Gritzo said key practices to defend against this type of event are analyzing supply chains to establish geographically diverse supplier options and having back-up systems for vital operations.

The EMP commission of 2004 argued that the U.S. needs to be vigilant and punish with extreme prejudice rogue entities that are endeavoring to obtain the kind of weapon that could be used in an attack like this.

It also argued that we need to protect our critical infrastructure, carry out research to better understand the effects of such an attack, and create a systematic recovery plan. Understanding the condition of critical infrastructure in the wake of an attack and being able to communicate it will be key, the commission argued.

The commission pointed to a blackout in the Midwest in 2003, in which key system operators did not have an alarm system and had little information on the changing condition of their assets as the blackout unfolded.

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The commission’s point is that we have the resources to defend against this scenario. But we must focus on the gravity of the threat and employ those resources.

Our interconnected society and the steady increase in technology investment only magnify this risk on a weekly basis.

“Our vulnerability is increasing daily as our use of and dependence on electronics continues to grow,” the EMP commission members wrote back in 2004.

But “correction is feasible and well within the nation’s means and resources to accomplish,” the commission study authors wrote. &

Dan Reynolds is editor-in-chief of Risk & Insurance. He can be reached at [email protected]