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

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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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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.

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