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Fuel Tank Leak Tests Questioned

Inquiry: Texas company will plead guilty to 10 felony counts of making false claims, U.S. says.

July 25, 2002|DAVID ROSENZWEIG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The nation's largest tester for leaks in underground gasoline storage tanks was charged Wednesday with faking results at federal facilities in 10 states, including California.

Tanknology-NDE International Inc. of Austin, Texas, has agreed to plead guilty to 10 felony counts of making false claims to the federal government and to pay fines and restitution totaling $2.29 million, the Justice Department said.

The charges grew out of a two-year investigation in which Tanknology employees were found to have failed to follow required test protocols and in some instances never performed the tests at all. In some cases, employees were videotaped engaging in what authorities characterized as "drive-by" tests of storage facilities--driving away after a few minutes and then submitting faked data.

In Southern California, the company admitted in its plea agreement to fabricating test results for storage tanks at postal facilities in Santa Clarita, Oxnard and Goleta.

Other sites where the firm acknowledged faking results include the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Illinois, the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts, Brooks Air Force Base in Texas, and facilities in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Arizona and Nevada.

The government said it has no evidence that the environment was harmed by any of the company's violations.

Tanknology officials and their lawyers could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Owners of underground storage tanks containing gasoline and other petroleum products are required by law to have their tanks tested periodically to ensure against leaks into the soil and ground water.

About a third of the nation's nearly 1 million underground storage tanks are in Southern California. Two of the country's largest Superfund sites--the San Fernando Valley Water Basin and the San Gabriel Valley Water Basin--were contaminated by leaking underground fuel storage tanks.

In addition to the "drive-by" tests, Tanknology admitted creating a work climate that encouraged employees to cheat.

Regional managers set unreasonable schedules for testers, according to the plea agreement. A corporate bonus system rewarded employees who conducted the most tests.

The company also admitted that quality control personnel were rebuffed when they complained that testers were inadequately trained and were performing shoddy work.

Tanknology has more than 500 employees and services more than 3,000 clients in the public and private sectors, according to federal documents. Since 1992, it has performed periodic tests for leaks at more than 180 federal facilities.

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