DEC: Spills prevalent but still preventable

Posted: Friday, October 10, 2003

If a pipeline burst or a vessel went aground spilling oil by the barrel into the environment, within hours few Alaskans would be ignorant of the circumstances thanks to radio, television and newspaper coverage.

Over the last seven years, however, some 70,000 gallons -- more than 1,272 barrels -- have seeped onto the ground and into streams and aquifers in Alaska from leaky home heating oil systems, according to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

It is chronic pollution that garners little news coverage, and thus, a collective spill few are aware of.

For homeowners whose tanks spring a leak, the consequences can be expensive, with cleanup costs often exceeding $10,000, a sum rarely covered by homeowner's insurance, warn DEC officials.

"That's the bad news; the good news is that preventing this from happening is easy and relatively cheap," said Bob Fultz, a heating oil spill prevention specialist with DEC.

As winter approaches, DEC is encouraging homeowners and business owners to inspect their heating oil tanks and correct any problems before a leak occurs. All it takes is some basic care and maintenance, Fultz said.

Here are a few steps you can take:

Note any unusually high fuel consumption or water in the tank -- it means you have a leak.

Check for corrosion, rot and leaks in the tank and lines. Look for rusting, weeping or wet spots on the tank, especially around welds. Replace sharply bent or twisted fuel lines.

Inspect tank supports. Look for rusted, weak or bent metal legs on the tank stand. Legs should be on a solid foundation to prevent them from sinking into the ground. For wood stands, look for signs of rot where the wood contacts the ground. DEC suggests bolting wood sections together if nails are used.

Look for cracks in sight gauges or filters.

Beware of tanks located where snow or ice can fall on them from the roof or trees.

Have underground tanks inspected. Check the tank with waterfinder paste or ask your fuel supplier to conduct the test. If water is found, additional testing may be necessary.

Also be aware of children playing on or around tanks, and of vehicles and snowmachines running into tanks or fuel lines.

A leaking tank potentially could lose all its contents in a matter of hours, and pinhole leaks in underground tanks may go undetected for years, DEC warns.

The DEC does not regulate home heating oil tank systems, Fultz said, but any spill of oil onto land or into water should be reported to the department. Obvious signs include pooled oil, diesel odor, areas of darkened soil, dead or absent vegetation, sheens on ice and well water having an unusual taste or odor. DEC spill specialists can offer cleanup advice.

Fultz also recommends considering anchoring your tank to the ground or to the building to prevent if from rolling during an earthquake.

Many tanks use their weight and that of the fuel inside to help keep them in place on a frame, but in a sufficiently violent quake, that may not be enough.

Fultz said he is considering upgrading his own tank and investing in a fiberglass model. He said they are spendy -- around $1,000 for a 275-gallon vessel -- but they're double-walled and impervious to corrosion.

Because of the potential costs of cleaning up a home heating oil spill, some people may be reluctant to report an incident. The 70,000 gallons known to have spilled over the past seven years is just what was reported, Fultz said.

"We know there are spills we don't get called about," he said.

On the Kenai Peninsula, call the DEC office at 262-5210 for further information on preventing heating oil spills and on how to properly install and maintain a tank.

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