September 8, 2013

West Bath spill exemplifies how quickly costs mount

DEP officials say the circumstances that led to a $40,000 cleanup aren't unusual in Maine, where the housing stock has grown so old.

By Tux Turkel
Staff Writer

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.

click image to enlarge

Jo Brillant shows one of the aging oil tanks on her West Bath property that will have to be replaced. The costs of upgrades, combined with an expensive cleanup at another home on her property, climbed to almost $45,000.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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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.

(Continued on page 2)

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