September 8, 2013

State struggles to reduce threat of home heating oil spills

Despite stricter rules and better technology, factors hinder progress in Maine, which sees hundreds of leaks every year.

By Tux Turkel tturkel@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

Today's poll: Oil tanks

Should state officials raise standards on oil tanks and technologies even if it means an increase on surcharges for oil deliveries?

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Chris Sprague, a service manager at Giroux Energy, installs a 275-gallon Roth oil tank recently in a Gorham home. The unit has an outer jacket that is meant to contain potential spills.

Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer

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The Roth Industries tank being installed in a Gorham home has an indicator alarm, above, that warns of a leak in the unit’s shell. The tanks also have fittings on the top of each unit, limiting spills from broken filters or supply lines.

Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer

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SEARCH OIL AND HAZARDOUS 
SPILL REPORTS from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

Leaking home heating oil tanks aren't just a Maine problem. Anywhere in North America where it's cold and homes lack easy access to natural gas -- places ranging from the Canadian Maritimes to Alaska -- tanks of heating oil and kerosene are leaking and spilling.

"All the time, we get calls from people who say, 'I've lost all my oil,"' said Eric Arvendon, section chief at the Massachusetts Division of Response and Remediation.

In Maine, a small fee on heating oil sales sustains the groundwater cleanup fund. By contrast, Massachusetts doesn't have a dedicated fund for home heating oil spills. If homeowners can't afford the work, the state steps in, and sometimes places a lien on the property to recover the cost.

"Maine is so far ahead of us," Arvendon said.

Now Maine also is trying to become a leader in prevention. McCaskill said a few steps could begin to slow the leak rate.

Most cleanup fund replacements take place at homes where residents qualify for low-income heating assistance, with the work being done through eight Community Action Programs. This year, the DEP-administered replacement program has stopped using single-wall, steel tanks and has moved to new-technology, double-wall tanks that feature a polyethylene inside and a galvanized steel outer shell. For outdoor tanks, the department specifies fiberglass-reinforced plastic.

Single-wall steel tanks remain the industry standard, however, and there's no move now to upgrade tank requirements in Maine.

"The single-wall steel tank has always met national code standards and is the predominant model used throughout the country," said Doug Dunbar, a spokesman for the Maine Fuels Board. "Many last 30 years or longer."

Dunbar added that the new tanks being promoted by the DEP "are considerably more expensive" than single-wall steel, anywhere from 50 percent more to three times as much. Both the DEP and Portland oil dealer Giroux Energy, which routinely installs the double-wall tanks, disagree with the estimate, however. They say the difference is only a few hundred dollars.

The DEP also is endorsing a program in which oil dealers perform an annual, ultrasonic test on customers' tanks. Called TankSure, the program is aimed at spotting internal corrosion, the leading cause of leaks. Participation is growing, but it's still only reaching a small share of customers who use full-service dealers.

High-tech tanks and testing are no substitute for the most basic form of prevention, which is homeowner awareness. Oil tanks often are hidden in a dark basement, where they are easy to ignore. The DEP says performing a simple checklist every year could spot many problems before they become leaks, if only homeowners would do it. Right now, before the heating season ramps up, is a good time.

ONGOING RELIANCE ON OIL

News reports give the impression that oil heat is fading in Maine, being replaced by natural gas, propane, electric heat pumps and wood. The amount of oil burned in homes has been cut in half over the past decade. But a widespread, absolute conversion will take time. Seven out of 10 homes still rely on oil for at least some heat, according to census figures, meaning they have an oil tank on the property.

No one tracks the age of heating oil tanks in Maine. But in a state with the sixth oldest housing in the nation, chances are that tank has been around for a while. And while age isn't always an indicator of trouble, older tanks that have accumulated water and sludge in their bottoms are more likely to fail from internal corrosion, the DEP says. Many tanks are fine after 25 years, but those installed outdoors, or in a damp cellar, don't last as long.

(Continued on page 3)

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Today's poll: Oil tanks

Should state officials raise standards on oil tanks and technologies even if it means an increase on surcharges for oil deliveries?

Yes

No

View Results