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Understanding the Risks of Damaged Underground Oil Tanks

risks of damaged underground oil tanks

Hello Marylanders –  Today we want to discus the risks of damaged (leaking) Underground Heating Oil tanks.

First we would like to clear up something we hear a lot from customers when they call to request an estimate for a buried oil tank removal. The first thing a customer tells us when they call is “I would like an estimate for an underground tank removal, the tank is not leaking but I want to get it removed”. OK so a popular myth is that you will know when your tank is leaking…….. You won’t.

There are a few ways a homeowner can tell if the tank is leaking but all those ways are very bad. Also those ways you can tell are not the common occurrence we see on a weekly basis. We have been in the tank industry for over 25 years, and we have seen every scenario you can think of.

So why can’t a homeowner tell if the tank is leaking? If your tank is still in use, you may think, I have a “tank stick” measuring device and you check it regularly and the oil level doesn’t drop fast so its not leaking. Or if the tank is NOT is use but you stick it frequently to check the level so you are sure it is not leaking. What about if you track the oil delivery bill, so you are sure it is not leaking? What about if you don’t do any of those things but you just “know” the tank is not leaking, maybe because the grass on top of the tank is nice and green?

We are sorry to say but unfortunately all 3 of those things listed above have no bearing on you being able to tell if the tank is leaking or not. With all of the temperature fluctuations from month to month vs. year over year, thermostat settings differing, the quality of insulation in the house. The furnace efficiency (or lack thereof), etc. We have never seen a residential tank owner be able to track the oil level, heating oil bill or gallons used close enough and accurately enough to tell if the tank is leaking. And finally oil leaks normally happen below ground, below the tank, so the grass being green on top means nothing about what occurs 5 or 6 feet below ground surface.

So now that we have cleared that up, lets discuss the risks of damaged, corroded, rusted, broken and leaking underground heating oil tanks. So we’ll assume for discussion purposes that you have a leaking tank. The obvious thing is the tank removal will cost more money because the soil is contaminated and that has to be remediated, that is what we see most frequently, and we will discuss that at the end. So lets talk about some other risks:

Risk #1 – The oil leaking into the ground can seep through your basement wall.

  • If the UST (underground storage tank) is close to your basement wall, which most are, the oil can leak through your basement foundation wall and cause an oil smell in the house. No one should have a smell of petroleum in their house. The oil can seep through old stone foundations, masonry block walls, and even concrete foundations. Then if your basement is finished it can ruin the drywall and carpet you have in that section of the basement. Plus, it is very difficult to remove oil from the foundation wall. Best case scenario is the exterior wall will have to be dug up and re-waterproofed, then the interior wall will have to be sealed. (so the oil is not being removed). Worst case scenario is that a portion of the foundation wall will have to be demolished and removed and replaced. This is very expensive and it is likely your home insurance company will NOT cover this.

Risk #2 – The oil can find its way into the drain tile (French drain) around the inside or outside of the basement walls below ground and then get into your sump pump pit or basin. (the hole in the floor that the sump pump sits in). We have seen many times over the years that a property owner can have actual red heating oil (not even just a trace or a small sheen on the water) sitting in the sump pump pit and not notice until the smell gets very strong.

  • This is very bad because now you have 3 problems. The drain tile and sump pump is contaminated but the sump pump is likely pumping that oil back outside and causing more contaminated soil, dead grass and dead vegetation. So not only do you have to pay for an oil tank removal but now you have to pay for the remediation of contaminated soil around & below the tank, also then a new sump pump replacement. Plus the drain tile may have to be cleaned or replaced, and wherever the sump pump discharges there will be additional contaminated soil.
  • It is also likely at this point the Maryland Department of the Environment will require an oil water separator to be installed outside on the sump pump discharge pipe. This will stay onside for several months and filter any oil out of the water as the sump pump continues to work.

Risk #3 – The heating oil (or gasoline if you have an old buried gas tank on the property), can contaminate the well on your property or your neighbors well water.

  • Any time a property owner has any leaking tank on the property the MDE will require a well test be performed looking for VOC’s and other petroleum compounds. (your well water company if they do testing for you, does NOT test for this stuff, it is a separate lab and different test than what they do annually for you).
  • Most commonly if a well shows signs of contamination it does not pose a health hazard because the levels are very ,very low. However the MDE inspector will require additional periodic well testing be performed for the next 12 – 18 months. So if you are in the process of selling the house this can cause problems, because now you have to escrow money to pay for well tests a year after you sold the place!
  • If the well is contaminated above the standard set by the MDE then you will have to pay for the installation of a carbon filter and have that added indoors to your well water conditioning system and this will likely have to stay in place for more than a year, in addition to more frequent well water tests (at your expense)
  • Think about what happens if you also contaminate your neighbors well water with your leaking tank? The state inspector can require that you pay for one or more of your neighbors wells to be tested if they are in close proximity to your tank. If it shows they have oil in their well, think about a potential lawsuit you could be opening yourself up to.   

Risk #4 – If the buried tank is close to the property line, your leaking tank could cause contamination of the soil in your next-door neighbor’s property. Then guess what? You have to pay for the remediation and restoration of their property at your expense and the insurance company likely will not cover this.  

  • If your neighbor has a fence or other decorative landscaping, hardscaping, trees, bushes etc and your leaking tank close to the property line caused contaminated soil that has to be remediated over the property line. They will want you to restore back to original state whatever landscaping, fence, grass, Sod, etc., they may have on their side of the property line.
  • This is another problem you could be open to a lawsuit for.
  • These situations are NOT a frequent occurrence, but they can and do happen.

Risk #5 – The soil (dirt) around and below the tank is contaminated.

  • This is a given. If you have a leaking tank there will always be contaminated soil
  • This dirt has to be excavated, tested and hauled away to a hazardous waste or specialized contaminated soil handling facility
  • This all costs additional money and is not included in the price of your oil tank removal
  • Leaking oil tanks in Maryland (depending on how bad the leak is) can cost you an additional $3,000 to $10,000 for the testing, cleanup, remediation, backfill and restoration.
  • On large tanks (ie. 1,000 gallon or larger) the contaminated area is larger and potentially can cost more than $10,000 for cleanup
  • If the leak on a small tank is very bad (ie. deep in the ground) this could necessitate additional work as required by the state inspector (MDE) and also raise the cost of cleanup and testing to over $10,000

While those high dollar amounts are NOT an every day occurrence we see, they are becoming more frequent due to the fact that UST owners have left their tanks in the ground for way to long past the tanks lifespan. So the leaks are getting worse.

We are here to help so contact GreenTrax, Inc today. We can answer any questions you have about your tank and property. 410-439-1085

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More To Explore

The Maryland Department of the Environment is cancelling the reimbursement fund for homeowners with leaking heating oil tanks!

This cancellation takes effect June 30th, 2024. You need to have your buried oil tank removed NOW, so if the tank is leaking you can get reimbursed for remediation costs before the program goes away. Click here for more information on the reimbursement fund as it operates now.

We urge everyone to contact their representatives in Annapolis and the Governors office and tell them DO NOT cancel the homeowner reimbursement fund for leaking residential oil tanks! They can still renew this program before this year’s legislative session ends.

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