FAIRFIELD — Tammy Baker and Anthony Goepfert sat in the dining room of the Best Western Motel on Main Street in Waterville. They didn’t want to be there; they’d rather be home, in a space that is theirs alone, maybe with a Christmas tree decorated and lit.

But the disabled couple say they were forced out of their apartment at 241 Main St. in Fairfield after a heating oil spill never was cleaned up and fumes rose into their ground-floor unit above the furnace. The oil fumes forced them out and sent them to the hospital, where medical tests showed they had been exposed to dangerous conditions similar to carbon monoxide poisoning.

The incident also has revealed a number of building code violations by the owner, Brown House Properties, with a municipal code inspector also detecting poor air quality.

Now they’re left feeling as if they have no recourse to plead their case and recover.

“I didn’t think we’d be doing Christmas in a hotel,” Goepfert said in an interview. “I was looking at the apartment (recently) wondering where we’d put the Christmas tree.”

“We have no place to live,” Baker said.

By the end of December, the two will have been living in the motel for a month. Baker said they are able to stay there only because of the generosity of Bishop Ray Bloom of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Skowhegan.

For Baker, a mother of three and grandmother of two, the recent oil spill and ensuing spat with her landlord left her feeling as if no one cared if she lived or died.

On Nov. 27, local company Fabian Oil came to the building to make an oil delivery. Baker said the company employee overfilled the tank, which led a spill. One tank was empty, which was the one meant to be filled; but instead, the delivery person began filling a second tank, which contained 250 gallons.

The apartment building where Tammy Baker formerly lived at 241 Main St. in Fairfield is seen on Thursday.

Goepfert said he could smell oil fumes when he got out of bed around 1 p.m., and he estimated the delivery came between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. that day. By his estimation, the person who delivered the oil went around back to where there are two fill pipes that go to different tanks in the basement.

The result was oil spilled out from the pipe onto the ground outside when the nozzle didn’t shut off properly. Additionally, a connection between the tanks apparently malfunctioned, and oil spilled out onto the dirt floor of the basement, according to Goepfert and Baker. It’s unclear exactly how much oil spilled.

“Nobody knows where the driver was,” Goepfert said, indicating that whoever it was simply took off and didn’t make any effort to clean up the mess.

However, the owners of the property tell a different story, saying Baker’s allegations are false.

Other tenants are staying in the building, which has a total of five units, but it’s unclear how many people still live there. Other tenants could not be reached for comment.

Baker said she called the landlord after the spill, and he came over around 2 p.m. that day to see the spill, which Baker said also had gone into the basement. According to Baker, the landlord, Sherwood Booker, of the Brown House Properties, told them he couldn’t do anything. By 6 p.m., the fumes had become overwhelming, Goepfert said, as their apartment is right above the basement.

“She calls him about the fumes,” Goepfert said of his fiancée, Baker, “and (Booker) said open the windows and grab extra blankets, because it’s gonna be cold.”

By 7 p.m., they had to call for an ambulance, setting off a string of medical and psychological concerns.

“I am desperate,” Baker said in the motel dining room, fighting back tears. “This has not only emotionally but mentally messed with me.”

And for the couple, the ordeal isn’t over now that they’re out of the apartment. Baker said even the smell of gasoline, such as from car exhaust or people filling their cars at a gas station, brings her back to that apartment. It’s a trigger.

“I almost lost my life,” she said, thinking also of her family, her three children and two infant grandchildren. “They could have lost me. This is my life and his life.”

‘PLACE TO CALL HOME’

Tammy Baker and her fiancé, Anthony Goepfert, have paperwork supporting their claim about a reported oil spill that made them sick at the apartment they rented at 241 Main St. in Fairfield. Reuters

Both Baker and Goepfert are disabled. She has a seizure condition and cerebral palsy, while he has liver disease. They are on a fixed income, and even though the bill for their temporary housing is being taken care of by Bloom, they still worry about finances.

Being in a hotel room, they don’t have the space an entire apartment affords. Without a kitchen, they can’t cook. That means take-out most nights or walking across the street to the grocery store for cold cuts.

Goepfert said this is costing them money they no longer have. That’s because shortly after the oil ordeal, the couple was informed that Brown House would keep their $625 security deposit because the two did not pay rent for November. They say they did pay, and they have receipts to prove it.

So on Dec. 1, when rent was due, Baker gave Booker a written notice — which she said they were advised to do after calling a lawyer — saying they would not pay rent again until the oil spill was taken care of.

“I have been advised to withhold our rent for the month of December until complications of the oil spill that occurred on Nov. 27, 2017, have been dealt with and approved by the proper authority,” Baker’s note reads in part. “At this time our residence is uninhabitable and a liability to live in.”

But Lindsey Burrill, one of the owners of Brown House Properties, said it was Baker’s decision to move out of the apartment. Brown House has 250 properties in the immediate area and Burrill said the company has just under 300 properties.

Goepfert and Baker said they were able to get all their belongings out of the house and are storing them in a unit also being paid for by Bloom.

“When a landlord threatens you for just $625 and doesn’t care if you live or die, that’s not right,” Goepfert said.

“This is just wrong,” Baker said.

Bloom said he saw it as his responsibility as bishop to help Baker and Goepfert. He said Baker is a church member, but she hasn’t been attending for long and church members don’t know her well. Nonetheless, he said, “someone’s got to give a hand.”

He said the apartment was uninhabitable because of the fumes, and said as far as he could tell, the landlord didn’t seem interested in rectifying the situation. He said even after a few days, when he went to help them pack, he still could smell the heating oil.

“I know they had left the windows open to air it out for a couple of days,” Bloom said. “When I went in, I could just smell the fumes. It burnt the nostrils a bit.”

Bloom said church members continue to try and help Baker and Goepfert find a new apartment, but it’s been hard to find something they can afford and meets their needs. He said they may have a lead on something they could move into Jan. 15.

“Things are looking up. We’ll get them taken care of, for sure,” Bloom said. “I don’t know what else to do, I can’t find them a place faster.”

MEDICAL EFFECTS

It was the nausea they noticed first, then fits of dizziness, followed by headaches. The fumes became overpowering after the spill, with the furnace right below their apartment. When the ambulance arrived the night of Nov. 27, Baker said the responders were also hit with the fumes.

So they went to Inland Hospital in Waterville and had blood drawn and tested. According to hospital documents they showed the Morning Sentinel, the two had carboxyhemoglobin levels much higher than they should have been. Carboxyhemoglobin is complex of carbon monoxide and hemoglobin that forms in red blood cells upon contact with carbon monoxide. According to the documents, the level should be 1.5 percent or lower.

At her first reading, Baker’s was nearly 8 percent. Goepfert’s was 4.5 percent.

These symptoms are common in cases of carbon monoxide poisoning, in which a gas is produced by burning fuels such as gasoline or kerosene. It keeps oxygen from reaching the brain, heart and other organs.

Waterville Fire Chief David LaFountain said a person cannot get carbon monoxide poisoning from smelling heating oil; instead, carbon monoxide poisoning comes as a result of breathing in burned fuels. However, he said it was possible for people to get sick from breathing in heating oil fumes.

LaFountain cited a study from the Minnesota Department of Health about fuel oil flooding and contaminating buildings. That study looked at how fuel oil can affect human health, saying that researchers know little about such effects. It says breathing in vapors from fuel oil No. 1, such as kerosene, “for periods as short as one hour may make you feel nauseous, irritate skin and eyes, or affect the nervous system.”

CODE VIOLATIONS

The two eventually were released from the hospital, at which point they had to meet with the Fire Department. Fairfield Fire Chief Duane Bickford referred questions to the town manager.

The town’s code enforcement officer went to the apartment, and in a note provided to the Morning Sentinel, a slew of code violations are listed.

According to a letter from Bruce Bristow, a compliance officer with the Maine Fuel Board who performed an inspection of the property with the town’s code enforcement officer, more than 10 violations were observed. They included the emergency switch not being outside or near the boiler room entrance, the boiler vent termination not being the minimum distance from the ground, an opening in the basement next to the boiler vent termination, cast iron fittings being used on the oil tank fill pipe and vent, improperly supported boiler piping and wiring, oil tank legs being improperly supported by combustible material, and others.

Bristow conducted the inspection Dec. 4. He sent Booker a letter later that day with a list of the violations. In addition, a note from the town’s code enforcement officer listed poor air quality as a violation as a result of the spill. On Dec. 11, Booker was ordered to make corrections because of the spill and inform the town when the repairs were complete. This included addressing the entire list of violations Bristow found, immediately cleaning the spill inside on the basement soil and outside as well, and removing the odor from the property.

Baker and Goepfert said no such efforts ever were made.

Burrill said not much oil actually was spilled — just about half a cup on the ground outside. She said Fabian contacted them immediately after the spill, and within two hours the company had someone on site and Fabian was taking care of it.

Burrill also said Baker “took it upon herself” to contact the town’s code enforcement office. She said Fabian already is working on deficiencies found in the building, and that while the Department of Environmental Protection was called, the spill was so minimal that the DEP ultimately decided no action was necessary to clean it up.

Baker, meanwhile, continues to call this a serious incident.

“Our carbon monoxide detector never went off,” Baker said. “If I hadn’t called the EMTs, we could have died. And all I got from the oil company was, ‘I’m sorry.'”

Fabian Oil didn’t respond to an interview request.

Baker and Goepfert think the fumes surrounding them in the apartment put their lives in jeopardy. According to Dr. Andrew Smith, a state toxicologist, breathing fuel oil vapors “can result in headaches, nausea, dizziness and irritation of the eyes, nose and throat. Physical contact with heating oil to the skin can result in mild irritation. All of these symptoms are not long-lasting and disappear with the odor.”

While Baker and Goepfert considered their lives to be in danger from the fumes, Smith said it is “very unlikely that prolonged inhalation of spilled heating oil fumes (would) be fatal, unless it involves very high levels of exposure for an extended period of time.”

Fairfield Town Manager Michelle Flewelling said the town was aware of the incident, given that the Fire Department and the code enforcement office had been called in. She said the town has contacted the Maine Department of Environmental Protection; and the Maine Fuel Board, which also was brought in to investigate, issued a list of deficiencies that she said need to be fixed by Jan. 10, 2018.

Daniel Bradstreet, Waterville’s code enforcement officer, said that in his tenure, Brown House had not registered any violations, and the company has many properties in the city. City Manager Mike Roy said Brown House Properties always has been a good partner for the city to work with, and that to his knowledge there have been no problems with the company in the past.

The company did have a recent spat with the city earlier this year, when it tried to purchase a dilapidated building that the City Council ultimately voted to demolish.

SEEKING JUSTICE

These oil fill pipes are where tenants Tammy Baker and her fiancé, Anthony Goepfert, say oil spilled outside and inside the apartment building they rented at 241 Main St. in Fairfield. The pipe at left was marked “Do Not Fill” on Tuesday. Reuters

Burrill said Baker’s claim that she was told to open the windows to air out the smell and wrap herself in blankets to keep warm was inaccurate. She said they would never advise a tenant to open a window in the winter, because that would put a stress on the boiler to keep the heat going, could result in pipes freezing and ultimately would mean tenants were cold.

“Maybe she thought to do it on her own,” Burrill said. “We would never do that; that would be counterproductive. We’re looking to protect our building and the people inside.”

Burrill also said she would not classify the smell as fumes, but rather as an odor. She said Baker might have wanted to open the windows to eliminate an odor. She said Baker might have been able to smell the odor outside the apartment, but didn’t think it was something that required hospitalization.

“We take maintenance very seriously,” Burrill said. “… We have to take these complaints seriously. Within two hours we had someone on site, just to make sure our eyes were on it. This is something that in my eyes is wrapped up tightly. It’s over.”

By late December, someone had written “Do Not Fill” on the side of the house on 241 Main St., pointing to the faulty pipe. The couple said the oil company said it couldn’t take care of the problem until January.

“All I know is I want some justice,” Baker said. “I’m tired.”

The couple is trying desperately to find a lawyer to take up their cause. They’ve been to Pine Tree Legal Assistance, an Augusta-based nonprofit organization that provides free civil legal assistance and makes the legal system available.

Tom Kelley, litigation director at Pine Tree Legal Assistance, said Baker and Goepfert might have a good claim to get their deposit back, but the organization doesn’t have all the facts. If an oil spill did cause the two to have to vacate the apartment, and the spill was not their fault, then it would have been appropriate for them to leave an uninhabitable apartment. While he didn’t know the landlord’s position, he said the couple might have a good claim to be relieved of some rent obligation as well as get their deposit back.

He also added the oil company might have some liability to both the tenants and the landlord if it improperly spilled heating oil.

“It’s quite dependent on the facts of the case,” Kelley said. “We’d want to hear everyone’s story before assessing the case.”

Colin Ellis — 861-9253

[email protected]

Twitter: @colinoellis