CAPE MAY POINT - An undetected fuel oil leak, a high water table, and sandy soil were all factors in a Lighthouse Avenue woman’s all-too-common experience with home heating oil tanks.
It didn’t help that the tank was right next to an outdoor shower, under a roof that did not have a gutter, and next to an old abandoned septic field that gave the fuel oil an easy route to the groundwater.
“It followed the drain pipe for the septic system. The septic was an open hole to the water table,” said Paul DeBlasio, of Northstar Environmental Services in Dennis Township.
“The rainwater and the shower pushed it down,” said Steve Russell, Northstar’s health and safety officer.
Before the ordeal was over the yard look like a bomb hit it as Northstar dug out an estimated 200 tons of oil-soaked soil. The company also brought in equipment to remove the oil from 450,000 gallons of groundwater. The hole was so deep the company had to put in metal piling to keep the modest one-story house from falling into it.
The final cost was over $100,000 and insurance, as is usually the case, did not cover it. The homeowner, Pat Casey, who lives in Hawaii and was renting out the house, now plans to sell it, said her cousin Ernest Heegardcq, who lives nearby on Alexander Avenue.
“It was a pretty traumatic thing. No insurance covered it and it hit her hard,” said Heegard.
There are thousands of such tanks in the state and little money to clean them up. Hurricane Sandy brought the issue to the forefront as high water levels lifted up oil, which is heavier than water, from old tanks buried in many barrier island communities. The location of many tanks is not even known until there is a problem.
“The floods came to the barrier islands and water displaced the oil. We had a red (fuel oil is red) sea in Ventnor as oil in the tanks just came out. It stained the fences red,” said DeBlasio.
Sandy uncovered one in Longport that was under a concrete floor in a utility room, Russell said. DeBlasio said an unknown tank was discovered in Brigantine by a homeowner jacking up his house to a higher elevation to avoid future floods. In another Longport case, oil came up under the house and soaked the floor joists and was sucked up into the sheetrock.
“There is an abundance of them on the barrier islands from Brigantine to Cape May. A lot of older homes have them. The saltwater is so high it corrodes the bottom,” said DeBlasio.
Northstar removes about 40 such tanks a year and cleans up the soil and groundwater. DeBlasio is a Licensed Site Remediation Professional, or LSRP. A few years ago the state Department of Environmental Protection, hoping to get more tanks removed and quicker, set up the LSRP program to encourage private enterprise to get involved. DeBlasio said the LSRP license required 10 years experience along with exams and ethics checks.
Subhead: Tank Numbers
Bob Considine, a spokesman for the DEP, said there are 15,862 regulated underground tanks in the state. These are the ones the state knows about but it does not account for residential heating oil tanks.
“We do not have any statistics on the number of homeowner heating oil tanks within the state,” Considine said.
The DEP inspected many of the regulated tanks after Sandy and found 40 that may have leaked during the storm, Considine said.
The DEP regularly inspects the regulated tanks and registers a 90 percent compliance rate with “release detection and prevention measures.” Residential fuel oil tanks are not regulated or inspected. The Lighthouse Avenue tank was not under ground but most of the ones presenting problems are buried, which means they usually are out of sight and out of mind until there is a problem.
“There are still a ton of underground oil tanks in use and nobody knows until they go to sell their house,” said DeBlasio.
It’s unclear when homeowners began burying the tanks but DeBlasio said the oldest he has heard of was one in Atlantic City dating to the 1920’s.
Barrier islands present special problems because the groundwater is usually influenced by the tides and is corrosive because there is salt in it. On islands with small lots, Northstar often has to dig them out by hand since there are only a few feet of open space between homes and the side yards is where the tanks are often buried, though DeBlasio said he has found them under driveways, front porches and beneath later additions to homes.
The average cost, DeBlasio said, is between $25,000 and $30,000 though the firm did one job for more than $200,000.
“We have a ton of clients who don’t know what to do because they don’t have $25,000 to $30,000,” said DeBlasio.
Some towns require the removal and clean-up before a house can change hands. Some banks and mortgage companies require the removal before they will lend money. Some insurance companies won’t write homeowner policies if there is an underground tank.
There is some funding available from grants and low-interest loans through the DEP and the New Jersey Economic Development Authority but it does not keep pace with applications. Considine said there are 1,927 applications pending for total claims of $49.7 million, but there is only about $9.6 million in funds available right now.
“They’re not taking on any new applications,” DeBlasio said.
Subhead: Finding Them
Northstar sometimes merely traces piping when an oil spill is evident but the firm also uses ground-penetrating radar in more difficult cases.
“It’s a sonar survey of the ground. If radar hits metal it makes an image on the computer,” DeBlasio said.
Clay can stop the oil from moving but in sandy soils it sinks until it hits groundwater and then floats on top of it, but often moving horizontally. Northstar found oil at 24 feet at a job in Franklinville, Gloucester County, and more than 25 feet in Vineland, Cumberland County, but Russell said groundwater is usually at about 6.5 feet in the shore towns. DeBlasio said the good thing is the high groundwater stops the oil from going deeper.
After finding the tank, they take soil samples to find the vertical and horizontal extent of the spill and where soil is above the state standard of 5100 milligrams of petroleum hydrocarbons (oil) per kilogram. This profile of the ground is used to devise a remediation plan. On Lighthouse Avenue, that profile included digging into a neighbor’s yard.
Besides excavating soil and replacing it with clean fill, the firm uses an 80-gallon per minute mobile groundwater treatment system with carbon and oil separation filters.
There are times when they have great news for homeowners because the tank did not leak at all.
Besides residential tanks, Northstar has removed them from defunct gas stations, dry cleaning operations and many other commercial customers.
Cape May County had to clean up underground fuel tanks at the Cape May Airport dating back to the World War II naval air station located there. County Engineer Dale Foster said the county still installs underground tanks but the newer technology includes fiberglass liners and monitoring systems to detect leaks and water infiltration.
“We stay in compliance and the DEP does spot checks now and then,” Foster said.
Heegard said he combated the problem by putting his tank on a concrete catch basin painted with a strong marine paint. If there was a leak, he would have seen it, though he no longer has to worry about it since he switched to natural gas.