Chuck Davis used to run Chuck''s Exxon station in the tiny South County community of San Ardo with his grandfather. The grandfather-grandson partnership started the business in 1974, and, in 1991, they claimed their little slice of the American dream pie when they purchased the property where the station stands. They never made a fortune, but they scraped out a living by pumping gas, fixing tires and towing cars. But now, due to the state regulation that, as of Jan. 1, will require service station owners to retrofit or replace gas storage tanks, Davis'' family-owned station is little more than a memory.

"It put me out of business," says Davis. "I just don''t have the money."

Chuck''s Exxon is just one of an estimated 53 gas stations in Monterey County--many of them in small, rural communities--that have stopped or will stop selling gas after the Dec. 22 deadline for complying with a state regulation requiring that all underground gasoline storage tanks be double-walled. The intent of the law passed 10 years ago is to prevent ground water contamination due to leaky, single-walled storage tanks.

While complying with the new law won''t be insurmountable to larger, corporate-owned stations, the $150,000 average cost of replacing a single tank is often just too much for smaller, independently owned stations to bear. And, after the deadline, distributors will not be allowed to sell gas to noncompliant stations, so those small station owners are finding that there days are really and truly numbered.

"What we''re seeing is the small country stores that have one tank with their store but can''t afford to replace it," says Walter Wong, Monterey County''s environmental health director. "Those that have a grocery store will just sell groceries. It looks like the small mom-and-pops will find [compliance] too expensive."

Anticipating the new law, Davis decided to shut down his gas pumps and concentrate on towing and tire repair. But, without the gas income, he soon had to take a job as a night watchman in Salinas, traveling 150 miles round-trip five days a week.

"I tried towing and tire work, but it got to the point where I couldn''t pay the bills, says Davis. "I used all my savings."

With the help of county health department officials, Davis has spent the past year applying to a low-interest loan program available to station owners through the California Coastal Rural Development Corporation''s underground storage tank (USK) program, which is designed to help independent station owners bear the cost of the new law. However, Davis didn''t qualify.

"I went through a stack of paperwork," says Davis, "and then they said, ''I''m sorry, you don''t qualify, you don''t make enough money.'' I''ve got a stack of paperwork you wouldn''t believe right now. You can''t believe all the crap I went through."

"We''re trying to work with him and find ways for him to get funding," says John Ramirez, a hazardous materials specialist with the county health department. But, he says, all the county can do is steer station owners through the application process.

Other owners of small stations say they have been able to comply with the new law, but add that they''ve incurred a huge amount of debt to do so.

"The small people like me can''t afford it," says the owner of PDQ Food Mart in Seaside who asked not to be named. He says he took out a $250,000 bank loan to replace his storage tanks after he was also told that he didn''t qualify for state loans. "If I had $250,000, why would I work?" he laughs.

Pete Perez, owner of Pete''s Shell in Soledad and Pete''s Texaco in Gonzales, is spending about $300,000 to update his Gonzales station. He''ll have to close his pumps for a couple of months, he says, while the new tanks are installed and his station renovated.

However, Perez is keeping a positive attitude about the regulation.

"For the small mom-and-pops, it''s sad to see them go. But I think it''s a good law all the way around," says Perez. "I hate to spend all that money, but it''s good not only for protecting the environment but for my own protection against spills."

In the long run, he says, it may be cheaper for stations to replace the tanks than to pay for a gas leak cleanup. "When you''ve got a [gasoline] spill, you''re opening your checkbook to clean up the spill," says Perez. "As a small businessman, it hurts to spend the money because you just don''t have it."

Besides funding, the county health department is working with owners to come up with less costly alternatives that would put stations in compliance. Ramirez says that adding epoxy lining or a bladder system to single-walled tanks are two less costly alternate routes. Also, in rural areas, some smaller tanks can be stored above ground if approved by the local fire district.

"People get these horror stories about how some station owners are losing everything." says Ramirez. "We are trying to alleviate those fears, we are doing anything we can to try come up with alternatives."

As for consumers, the closings will leave a fuel crunch in some communities. For instance, says Ramirez, a closed station in the Lockwood area will create a gas-free zone on a 40-mile stretch of road between Lake San Antonio and King City.

Meanwhile, Davis will be trying to come up with the cash to remove his obsolete storage tanks. Originally quoted $37,000 just to remove the tanks, he has since found a company that will remove them for a mere $10,000.

Davis has just three years of payments left on his mortgage. However, if he can''t keep up the payments, he may have to sell the land which he was saving for his retirement.

"I just think the system sucks is what I think, because I tried everything," says Davis. "All these [storage tank] companies are making so much big money, and I can''t even get any help from UST [state loan program] when I paid taxes on every gallon I pumped through. If you make money you can get it done, otherwise you can''t. I finally just got so disgusted I just threw my hands up."

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