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 2)

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

click image to enlarge

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

click image to enlarge

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

Additional Photos Below

Related headlines

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

"I think there still are a lot of tanks out there that are really old," said Jamie Py, president of the Maine Energy Marketers Association.

It's a matter of money, Py said. Basic installation for a 275-gallon tank costs between $800 and $1,500, he said. Better tanks are closer to $2,000.

"People are reluctant to spend money," he said. "It's one of those things: You don't do anything until there's a problem."

The move to alternative fuels also is a factor, as people put off the cost of upgrading their heating systems while they contemplate a change.

"They say, 'Can I get another year or two out of this?"' Py said.

REGULATIONS AND INDUSTRY PRACTICES

Maine has made progress over the past 15 years in reducing the risk of heating oil spills, by tightening up the rules that govern tank installation.

Long gone are the days when it was sufficient to use a 55-gallon metal drum as a storage tank. In 2000, underground fuel lines had to be sleeved to protect from leaks. In 2003, outdoor tanks were required to be secured and brought up to code.

Code also requires that oil equipment work be done by licensed technicians, and that the entire fuel system must be upgraded when a new appliance is installed. But that's where the regulations generally end. Maine has no state permit for tank installation and no requirement that home heating oil tanks be inspected or monitored.

So it's not unusual, when the DEP responds to a spill, to find tanks that were either installed illegally or not upgraded to code.

A typical example is a tank installed outside under the eaves of a house. Ice or snow cascades off the roof and strikes the fuel filter, spilling the entire contents of the tanks onto the ground. That fuel filter is supposed to be covered by a metal, tent-like protector, a simple add-on costing $60 or so. This sort of physical damage is the second leading cause of oil spills.

As a matter of good practice, oil dealers instruct their delivery people to look for problems. They typically are told to call the office to report issues, and inform homeowners when something needs to be fixed.

Oil dealers say they tell their delivery people not to fill tanks that appear dangerous or out of compliance. But there's broad discretion in this area, and the decision often rests on the judgment of a driver.

"We can't hold every driver's hand for the thousands of deliveries they do every year," said John Wheeler, retail sales manager at C.N. Brown in South Paris. "But we have driver-training meetings, and we tell them: 'If a tank isn't on solid legs, if it's weeping, if there's no vent alarm (to warn of an overfill), you're not allowed to fill the tank."'

Wheeler acknowledges that oil dealers are under financial pressure these days. Some may be reluctant to tell a customer they won't deliver until a problem is fixed.

Wheeler added: "People say, 'I'll just call another dealer.' We say, 'That's fine."'

THE TANKSURE PROGRAM

Home heating oil spills remain a persistent problem across cold-weather states and Canadian provinces.

In Alaska, where homeowners bear the full responsibility for installation and maintenance, 121 tanks leaked in 2012, a 10-year high. In Atlantic Canada, an insurance industry report found half of all spills were traced to tank corrosion. It also found outdoor tanks accounted for 500 of the 663 claims filed between 2008 and 2011.

Some states are trying to prod homeowners to make their tanks safer. In New Hampshire, which sees more than 150 spills a year, tank owners have until July 2015 to bring their installations into compliance with the state code. Otherwise, they will receive less money from the state's groundwater cleanup fund if a leak occurs.

(Continued on page 4)

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors


Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

click image to enlarge

 


Further Discussion

Here at PressHerald.com we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)


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