September 11, 2013

Our View: Step up prevention before heating oil spills

Mandating double-walled tanks could conserve fuel and keep the water supply cleaner.

By the calendar, it's still officially summer, but recent dips in the temperature have given us a reminder – as if we need it – that winter isn't all that far away.

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click image to enlarge

Jo Brillant with an old oil tank on her property in West Bath that has to be replaced. The cost of upgrades – combined with the cleanup of a kerosene tank that fell over elsewhere on the property – climbed to almost $45,000.

2013 File Photo/Gordon Chibroski

For most Mainers, home heating means oil. And Maine homeowners' widespread reliance on oil means that twice a day, heating oil has leaked or spilled in somebody's basement or backyard, posing environmental risks and requiring costly cleanup.

We're more aware of oil spills caused by railroad and pipeline accidents than we are of household heating oil spills, but the latter literally hit much closer to home. Half of all Maine homes depend on wells for drinking water, so heating oil or kerosene spills can have widespread potential impacts. Though Maine's a leader on cleanup, we should be looking at prevention as well.

A tank replacement program was implemented in 1998, but the fact that the yearly number of spills hasn't varied much since then suggests that spill-prevention efforts must go further.

Tank requirements haven't kept up with technology that allows tanks to contain spills. State lawmakers need to step into this gap, mandate upgraded tanks and fund incentives for compliance. There's no reason for Mainers to have to choose between warm homes and a clean environment.

Last year, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection spent $1.2 million to clean up contaminated groundwater sites. (The DEP couldn't calculate how much groundwater pollution is attributable to home heating oil spills versus other sources.)

Seventy percent of Maine homes still rely on oil for some heat, but nobody knows how many of those homes are at risk of a leak or a spill. After an oil tank is installed, no state law requires it to be inspected or monitored. There's also been no move to require that Mainers use new-technology, double-walled tanks, which help prevent water pollution by holding any oil leaked from the inner container. (These are the tanks the DEP installs as part of its replacement program.)

Double-walled tanks cost more than single-walled ones, so those who aren't eligible for the state tank replacement program may be reluctant to foot the bill for one of the newer kind. The DEP could give homeowners a positive incentive in the form of rebates for people who upgrade their tanks, just as Efficiency Maine subsidized the purchase of power-saving appliances.

Maine also has the opportunity to break ground on environmental policy. Double-walled oil tanks aren't yet industry standard, but that could change if state legislators decide to tighten state law and require their installation. (Neighboring New Hampshire prods homeowners to make their tanks safer by reducing the state's share of funding for cleanup spills from tanks that don't meet code.)

A significant share of Mainers' monthly budgets goes toward staying warm during our long, cold winters. If upgraded tanks can ensure conservation of home heating oil and preservation of a clean water supply, then mandating them would be a win for everyone.

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