September 7, 2013

Home heating oil leaks, spills damaging and costly during winter months

By Tux Turkel
Staff Writer

The cold night air that swept into Maine late last week was a reminder that another heating season is bearing down, and for a few unlucky homeowners, filling up the oil tank this fall will have disastrous results: a costly and damaging leak or spill.

click image to enlarge

Chris Sprague, a service manager at Giroux Energy, installs a 275-gallon ROTH oil tank on Sept. 3 in the basement at a home in Gorham.

Portland Press Herald photo by Tim Greenway

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Every year, between 450 and 500 home heating oil spills are recorded in Maine, a number that has not declined since 1998, when the state launched a program to replace leaking or unsafe tanks.

More than 7,000 tanks have been replaced under the program, which is expected to cost $800,000 this year, with the funds coming from a surcharge on oil deliveries.

Over the years, more than a quarter-million gallons of heating oil and kerosene have leaked or been spilled, according to state data compiled for the Maine Sunday Telegram, despite the fact that heating system installation rules have become stricter and tank technology has improved.

New tanks and new technologies offer a way to reduce spills and leaks, but state officials have been reluctant to impose new requirements because of concerns about the costs. That has left improvements in the hands of the private sector, particularly oil dealers — some of whom are taking steps to educate customers about how to avoid the problem.

Recent high-profile railroad and pipeline accidents have left many Mainers worried about the threat of oil spills on the overall environment. There’s less public awareness, however, of the prevalence of oil spills in basements or backyards, and of the potential effects in a state where half of all homes use wells for drinking water.

“When you have a home heating oil spill, it’s at your home,” said Peter Blanchard, who heads the Department of Environmental Protection’s division of response services. “So if you have a well, it’s more likely to be at risk.”

Also likely to be affected, Blanchard said, is indoor air quality, when petroleum seeps into soil or concrete and gives off sickening vapors.

The DEP says it’s unable to calculate how much groundwater pollution in Maine is caused by home heating oil spills, compared to other sources, such as transportation mishaps. But based on a five-year accounting summary compiled for the newspaper, the DEP has spent $318,172 over the past five years to replace wells fouled by above-ground oil tanks.

“We have a steady stream of these above-ground spills,” Blanchard said, “and time and time again, we have to pump out oil from wells.”

Why so little progress?  Experts point to several related reasons:

• Maine has 415,000 homes that heat with fuel oil. High oil prices are driving a conversion to alternate fuels, but Maine still has the highest share of oil-heated homes in the country.

• Maine’s housing stock is among the oldest in the nation, and many tanks have seen better days. Age isn’t always a determining factor, but older tanks tend to leak at some point, chiefly from internal corrosion.

• Some tanks weren’t installed to the specifications of Maine Fuels Board rules. They may be especially prone to failure, especially from physical damage.

• Some tanks are filled when they probably shouldn’t be. Oil dealers acknowledge there are times when competitive pressures and a desire to make sure customers have heat may cloud better judgment. The combination of these factors frustrates state environmental officials. They say many leaks could be avoided, if more Mainers would — or could — spend the money to maintain their heating systems better.

“People ask me, ‘Why haven’t you whipped this problem?’” said David McCaskill, who has been running the state’s oil spill prevention unit since 1998. “The numbers stay the same. The causes stay the same. So we’re going to have a spill every half-day on average, and it drives you mad.”

(Continued on page 2)

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