The following article was originally published in the Spring of 1990 New York State Department of Environmental Conservation “Tank Bulletin”, Vol. 3, Number 1. While the information on enforcement of laws pertains to New York only, the information on the fuel tanks and fuel spills is worthwhile in any locale.
Home Owners Liable for Spills from Home Heating Oil Tanks
by Joe McDonald, DEC Spill Responder
When most people think of environmental spills, they visualize the Exxon Valdez sending out a miles-long oil slick or a tank truck overturned and leaking gasoline. Some may even bring to mind oil seeping from beneath a pile of burning tires, or pools of pesticide- contaminated water in the smoldering remains of a garden store. But environmental spills are occurring continually with approximately 10,500 spills from petroleum and chemical tanks alone being reported to DEC annually.
New York State has approximately 190,000 tanks which must meet minimum standards to operate in the State in order to combat against the problems associated with environmental spills. These tanks are regulated by the State Petroleum or Chemical Bulk Storage regulations and/or the federal Underground Storage Tank (UST) regulations. But what about the thousands of residential home heating oil storage tanks that are not regulated by the State because their total storage capacity is less than 1,100 gallons and are not regulated by federal UST regulations because home heating oil is exempt?
Home heating fuel oil storage tanks are usually 275 to 1,000 gallons in capacity and do not fall under the State or federal regulations. The number of residential storage tanks has been estimated to exceed 3 million in New York State alone.
Bare steel tanks like the ones used to store home heating oil probably pose a greater overall environmental risk than most spills that make headlines, according to Tom Quinn, chief of DEC's Bureau of Spill Prevention and Response. Many tanks are buried, making corrosion likely and leaks hard to spot. Even a small tank can leak surprisingly large amounts of oil into the ground - and into the groundwater, irreplaceable drinking water for more than one in every three New Yorkers.
In a recent survey of petroleum spills which occurred in Levittown, Nassau County in 1989, 54% of the petroleum spills reported to the NYS Emergency Spill Hotline: 1-800-457-7362, were caused by leaking residential fuel oil tanks or lines. State-wide, over 1,500 residential spills (12% of the spills reported across the State) were reported and investigated by DEC.
The number of spills that actually occurred from residential tanks is much higher. Many homeowners and some local fuel oil dealers are reluctant to notify State or local authorities until a spill has affected a private water supply or is creating an odor problem.
The most serious and immediate threat from a leaking residential oil tank is the fuel oil smell. Long term exposure to even low levels of petroleum vapors in a house is hazardous to human health. Short term reaction to petroleum vapors is generally noted by a sore throat, headaches and/or skin rashes.
In the majority of these spills, nearby private wells, public utilities, streams or cellars are impacted. A large number of private wells that do become contaminated are either replaced or require treatment with an activated carbon filter.
Why are these tanks leaking?
During the 1950's and 60's, a large number of homeowners had their coal- fired furnaces converted to fuel oil. This required the bulk storage of fuel oil at their homes. Most of the 275 gallon steel tanks were installed in the cellars or outside next to buildings. The larger 550 and 1,000 gallon tanks were installed underground.
The Tank Corrosion Study conducted by Suffolk County Health Department in 1988 states, "In general, small tanks are much more likely to perforate than large tanks due to the thinner tank walls found in small tanks." Home heating oil tanks are constructed of lightweight and unprotected steel of 0.067 to 0.123 inches in thickness. Since most cellars are damp, the 275-gallon tanks will usually develop a leak in the bottom portion of the tank where moisture 'will collect and enhance corrosion of the thin steel. Also, tanks installed underground are exposed to corrosive soils and will eventually corrode and leak. Underground tanks that are over 17 years of age have a 50% chance of leaking, and many of the home heating oil tanks in the State were installed over 30 years ago.
Another source of leaks in home oil systems is the copper fuel oil feed line from the tank to the furnace. If when installed it comes in contact with a concrete cellar floor, it may develop a leak, since concrete appears to enhance corrosion of copper lines.
Who Pays for the Cleanup?
State law requires that the spiller pay for any cleanup that is required. "There are some horror stories out there," says Quinn. "Most homeowners do not know that they are responsible if their oil tanks or lines leak. So if the Department has to hire a cleanup contractor, owners are surprised to get billed for 8-, 10-, or 12- thousand dollars. And it is even worse when they later find out that their insurance policy has a pollution exclusion clause and will not pay the bill," he says.
Buried steel tanks are the riskiest, but costly damage can happen even when the tank is in a cellar.
A frequent cause of such spi11s is overfilling. "We had one spill that ran into the sump hole, and the sump pump picked it up and dumped it in the nearest stream. That cleanup was more than $40,000," Quinn recalls.
Quinn advised homeowners: "A bare steel home heating oil tank is a potential disastrous liability." Any bare steel tank is a spill waiting to happen and a lot of the tanks are already leaking.
Prevention of spills can be achieved without a large economic burden to the homeowner. A visual inspection by a fuel oil service personnel can usually detect some causes of a spill from an aboveground tank.
The likely problem areas are:
1) Storage tank is not structurally stable and may tip over.
2) Steel tank appears to be structurally sound, but the inside and bottom of the tank may be severely corroded and develop a leak or sudden rupture.
3) Overfill of a tank during a delivery, may be caused due to the lack of an inexpensive vent whistle, which acts as an overfill alarm.
4) Tank rupture during a delivery, caused by a restriction in the vent line due to a clogged vent screen.
5) Vent and fill pipes are constructed of PVC rather than steel. PVC joints may become disconnected during a delivery.
6) An abandoned fill line (with tank removed) is filled with 0i1 by the oil distributor, filling the basement with fuel oil.
Inspection of a buried tank and fuel lines will be almost impossible to perform visually. Replacement of any tank and lines that are underground and over 20 years of age is highly recommended and is a wise investment for homeowners in the long run. Precision testing of tanks and lines is available, but may prove to be costly for the average homeowner.
Parts of the above article were excerpted front "Environmental Perspective," conducted by Mary Kadlecek for DEC’s The Conservationist. September-October 1989.
The spiller (responsible party) is required by law to report the spill to DEC and appropriate local and federal authorities.
When notified of a spill, trained DEC responders, on duty around the clock, go to the scene to assess the danger to the environment and public health, ensure that the spill is effectively controlled and identify the responsible party.
DEC may assist local agencies in containing the spill using makeshift barriers and absorbent materials to temporarily contain the liquids until cleanup.
The spiller is responsible for cleaning up the spill. DEC oversees cleanup to make sure that the spiller removes the danger to the environment and public health.
DEC may use private standby contractors to clean up spills if:
- The spiller is unknown, uncooperative or unable to carry out cleanup work or to hire professional cleanup work, or
- the locality does not have the capability nor the resources for clean up.
Spiller liability is legally enforceable. DEC can require the responsible party to clean up the spilled materials. If a DEC standby contractor performs the remedial work, DEC uses the law to recover costs. DEC can also use the law to impose fines and penalties on responsible parties.
To report a spill, call the DEC Spill Hotline Number 1-800-457-7362.