WEST BATH – Dusk was approaching as Jerrie Williams pulled up her gravel driveway in late July and noticed what looked like water on the ground. Maybe someone had been washing a car, she thought.

Then the petroleum smell hit her. In the failing light, she realized that the kerosene tank behind her house had fallen over. When her husband and friends were unable to right the tank, Williams called the fire department. First responders contacted the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, but not before 225 gallons of fuel soaked into the ground.

Contractors had to dig down to bedrock and remove 144 tons of contaminated soil. The job cost $40,000.

While on the scene, the DEP also noticed a pair of aging tanks at a second home on the property. The agency later described them as “an accident waiting to happen.” Those tanks will be replaced, at a cost of at least $3,000.

The damage here was extreme, but the root cause is something state officials see all the time.

Maine has 415,000 homes that are warmed by oil or kerosene, and many of them are older. Many residents don’t have the awareness, or the money, to maintain their fuel tanks or replace them when they age or show signs of failure. Some tanks also are installed improperly, or placed in locations where they are prone to physical damage, such as ice falling from a roof and striking a fuel-line filter.

But unless the tanks appear outwardly hazardous, many oil dealers continue to deliver. Reasons include the pressures of a competitive market and a commitment to keep customers warm.

Several of these factors were at play here, where the kerosene tank was resting on a wooden cradle set on patio blocks. The cradle apparently rotted and gave way under the weight of a ton of kerosene.

The tank was installed in 2002. The work was a side job for a burner technician who maintained a furnace for Jo Brillant, the mother of Jerrie Williams and the owner of the property.

“I was very surprised,” Brillant said of the collapse. “I remember asking him if it was up to code. He said the wood was pressure-treated, and would last forever.”

In fact, the Maine Fuels Board has long required that outdoor fuel tanks be set on steel pipe legs. They must be no more than a foot high, supported by reinforced concrete blocks or a pad resting on compacted gravel.

But that’s rarely what Ann Hemenway sees, when she arrives on the scene of a tank spill. Hemenway, a DEP responder in Portland, sometimes finds tanks resting on the soil because their legs have sunk into the ground.

“I see tanks that are up to code, but I also see a lot of doozies,” she said.

Hemenway supervised the cleanup in West Bath. According to her draft report on the spill, kerosene had soaked into the ground and ran roughly 200 feet down the driveway to the gravel road. Excavation crews came in the morning and dug up the soil. A rigging company was hired to place a beam under Williams’ house to stabilize it, while the digging was taking place. A special vacuum was needed to suck up oil trapped in the bedrock, which is very close to the surface.

Fractures in the bedrock also showed signs of kerosene penetration. The DEP will monitor possible groundwater impact, since a neighbor’s drilled well is 40 feet away.

Few residents could afford to pay for such an extensive cleanup. And Brillant, who relies on Social Security income, said she discovered her home- owners insurance excludes oil spills.

Maine law generally limits liability to a $500 deductible, if homeowners report a problem as soon as a leak is discovered. The rest of the money for the work here will come from the state’s Groundwater Oil Clean-up Fund, which is sustained by a small fee on heating oil and other petroleum imports.

When tanks fail, questions often surface about whether oil dealers bear any responsibility. The answer is, not much.

The state code focuses on how tanks must be installed, not maintained. There are no permits for tanks or inspection requirements for dealers, although many drivers do check out a system before they fill it, as a matter of good practice.

“When they notice a tank is rusted or not up to code, some oil companies will make recommendations to the homeowner to repair it,” said Peter Blanchard, who directs the DEP’s division of response services. “But it costs money.”

In a further complication, Maine consumer law requires dealers to deliver during the heating season, between Oct. 15 and April 30, if the customer pays cash or has government heating aid.

According to Williams, her kerosene tank was topped up on June 24, with 124 gallons of kerosene. Williams, who said she is receiving federal heating assistance money, said she shops around for the cheapest price.

In this instance, she called Crowley Energy of Topsham. It was the first time the company had delivered there, according to Dick Crowley, the company’s president. Crowley said he wasn’t even aware of the spill, until contacted in August by the Maine Sunday Telegram. He then visited the site, and examined a photo of the tank immediately after the spill.

Crowley concluded that the driver failed to follow company policy and notify the office when he saw the wooden cradle, Crowley said.

“Any time you see a wooden foundation, you shouldn’t fill that,” he said.

Crowley said the driver will be “written up” for this mistake. After three such errors, he said, drivers are let go. But Crowley said he recognized that the incident also could be a teaching moment, and would discuss it at an upcoming staff safety meeting.

Crowley, however, has never delivered to the pair of tanks that the DEP says are at risk of leaking. Those are serviced by C.N. Brown, one of the state’s largest oil dealers.

The 275-gallon tanks are located at Brillant’s house, which is next to her daughter’s residence. The tanks are inside an insulated, clapboard-sided box that was built onto the side of the house. The insulation keeps the tanks warm enough to hold heating oil, which can gel in cold weather, but is less expensive than kerosene.

The installation was built by Brillant’s husband in 1986. But the tanks now appear rusty, and debris piled in the box makes it hard to see if any oil is leaking from the bottom. One of the tanks also is missing a required filler-neck device that emits a whistling sound when the tank is being filled. That whistle warns the delivery person not to overfill the tank. Overfilled tanks are the third largest cause of spills, according to the DEP.

Situations such as this one present challenges for oil dealers, according to John Wheeler, retail sales manager at C.N. Brown.

His drivers are trained to look for leaning legs or weeping tanks, and are instructed not to deliver to obvious problems. But it’s not unusual to find tanks inside insulated boxes, he said, even though they don’t meet code.

“There are literally hundreds and hundreds of people in this state that have done what this lady has done,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler said his driver had previously told Brillant to fix the filler neck, but nothing was done. So the driver has carefully been putting just enough fuel in the adjoining tank, so she doesn’t run out of heat in the winter.

“It’s a judgment call on the driver’s part,” Wheeler said.

That judgment will no longer be needed this heating season. The DEP plans to replace Brillant’s old installation with a 300-gallon fiberglass tank, a new design that won’t corrode. The agency also is looking into whether it can eliminate the need for a new tank at Williams’ house, and another in Brillant’s garage, by converting the remaining heating systems on the property to propane.

Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:

tturkel@mainetoday.com