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Watershed
Restoration
THE CLEAN WATER BOOK:
CHOICES FOR WATERSHED PROTECTION
     
CHAPTER 7:
UNDERGROUND STORAGE TANKS
 

Many residents of New Jersey use underground storage tanks to store heating oil. Although residential underground storage tanks containing heating oil are unregulated by federal and state laws, these tanks are a potential source of ground and surface water pollution. Home heating oil contains several substances that are known carcinogens.

Ground water pollution and vapor hazards are the most important concerns associated with leaking underground storage tanks. The lack of construction, installation, monitoring, and closure controls for the unregulated underground storage tank increases the potential for these problems to occur. Without proper monitoring and testing of the tank and piping, leakage may go undetected until a major and costly problem has occurred.

For these reasons and associated liability concerns, banks and mortgage companies will require a site assessment of properties, which contain unregulated underground storage tanks before they will invest in such properties. For the same reasons, real estate brokers will require a site assessment of such properties before they will market them.

 

LEAKING TANKS

Leaking underground storage tanks are a serious threat to ground water supplies, especially if these tanks are located in sensitive ground water areas. Sensitive ground water areas are areas near public or private water supply wells and areas of aquifer recharge.

Problems resulting from leaking tanks can include: surface water contamination, surface and subsurface soil contamination and property damage. Property damage can include seepage into buildings and damage to buried telephone conduits. Vapor leakage from underground tanks depends upon soil and weather conditions. Leaking vapors can cause health problems ranging from nausea to respiratory distress. The potential for combustion and fire is a concern for tanks located next to buildings since vapors may leak into the building.

Other less frequent problems associated with underground storage tanks include spills from overfilling the tank. Heating oil spilled during overfilling may contaminate the surrounding soils. This problem, if caught quickly, may involve only minor cleanup.

Leaks from underground storage tanks result from defects in tank material, improper fittings, improper installation, damage during installation, corrosion or mechanical failure of the pipes and fittings or tanks which are improperly abandoned or removed. Older tanks, especially those constructed of bare steel and those tanks located in highly corrosive areas, are more susceptible to leakage problems.

 

PROPER CONSTRUCTION AND INSTALLATION

New installations of homeowner underground storage tanks should be properly designed, constructed and protected from corrosion. All tanks, regulated or unregulated, must comply with local building, fire and zoning ordinances. Proper construction reduces owner liability and the threat to ground and surface waters.

Materials used for underground storage tanks should be corrosion proof, such as fiberglass reinforced plastic or steel wrapped with polyethylene, especially in sensitive ground water areas. Also, steel tanks can be purchased with corrosion protection for the tank and piping. Double-walled tanks and piping can provide added protection at a higher cost.

Protective equipment, including spill and overfill prevention devices and daily or continuous discharge monitoring systems, is also recommended. Older tanks, especially those over 20 years in age, should be tested for leakage and replaced if they are not corrosion protected.

The placement of tanks in close proximity to the ground water table or within the water table should be discouraged. Tank owners can opt for conversion to an alternate heating source or an above ground tanks with some form of additional containment that will capture leaks or overfills. These options should be strongly considered in sensitive ground water areas. Local construction code officials and fire officials should be contacted for restrictions on these alternatives to underground tanks.

 

IS THERE A LEAK?

It is important for you to know if there is a problem. The following could be signs of a leak in your home heating oil tank:

  • Any unexpected/unexplained fuel oil consumption increase that doesn't appear to be caused by increased use of your heating system (such as during prolonged periods of cold weather.)
  • Water in your underground storage tank
  • Consistent problems with your oil burner
  • Changes in or loss of vegetation in the area over and around the tank
  • Oil odors in areas other than around the oil burner
  • Tastes, odors or other problems with your drinking water, if obtained from a well
  • Staining on basement walls or floors adjacent to the tank
  • Presence of oil or a sheen in the basement sump or French drain
  • Oil or sheen in any nearby culverts, drainage ditches, storm drains, streams or ponds

For the first three problems, first contact the company that services your heating system to rule out a maintenance problem. To determine if any of the above problems are caused by a leaking fuel oil storage tank, contact an environmental contractor. Your local health department also may be able to offer advice in determining the source of the problem.

 

WHAT TO DO IF THERE IS A LEAK

If some type of heating oil discharge has occurred at your home, regardless of the quantity, you must report it to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection by calling its environmental action line at 1-877-WARN DEP (1-877-927-6337) as soon as a discharge is detected. You will be sent an information package that describes in detail your responsibilities, what must be done to clean up the spill and DEP's oversight role.

Next, if the sources of your discharge is a leaking tanks, contact your fuel oil company and ask that all residual fuel oil be pumped out from the tank. Be sure to ask if any of the oil is reusable.

It is important to contact a qualified environmental contractor to conduct the cleanup. Most cleanups involve removal of the leaking tank and any contaminated soil. The minimum work requirements for cleaning up affected properties are covered in the regulations entitled Technical Requirements for Site Remediation, which is available on the DEP web site at www.nj.gov/dep/srp/regs/regs.htm. The environmental contractor you hire for your cleanup should know these rules.

There are steps that a contractor needs to take to cleanup fuel oil contamination. All cleanups will change depending on individual situations. Steps are cited here to help you better understand the general cleanup process. They include:

  • The tank will be thoroughly cleaned and properly disposed of or recycled at a scrap metal facility.
  • If the storage tank is underground and must be removed, it will be removed according to local codes and the American Petroleum Institute's recommended practices.
  • Local construction permits will be required from your municipality.
  • When the tank has been removed, the contractor will excavate from the area any soils believed to be contaminated above the DEP's cleanup criteria. Soils over the tank may be separated from the contaminated soil and used as fill material, which will save on disposal and fill costs.
  • Once contaminated soil has been transferred, soil remaining in the excavation site will be sampled to document the effectiveness of the cleanup. A certified laboratory will analyze the soil samples and the results will be compared to the DEP's soil cleanup criteria to determine whether more is required.
  • Soil disposal may be the largest part of cleanup costs. Therefore, it is important that your contractor accurately determine which soils are appropriate for reuse.
  • What takes place during the tank removal will determine what additional work, if any, will be needed. If ground water is encountered during the excavation and there is fuel oil or sheen floating on the water, the floating fuel oil should be recovered. Then a ground water investigation or ground water cleanup will be necessary. If this occurs, the cleanup may become more complex and you may be assigned a DEP case manager, so that your contractor may be assisted in this complex stage.

Contact the Responsible Party Remediation Element at (609) 584-4150 (southern office) or (973) 631-6401 (northern office) if you have any questions or need assistance.

 

WHAT ROLE DOES THE STATE TAKE?

Under state laws, cleanup activities must be conducted for discharges of fuel oil. Cleanups may take place with or without state oversight. However, to secure final state approval of a cleanup, a 'no further action' letter is needed through the DEP's Voluntary Cleanup Program. This letter increasingly is required in real estate transactions. If you will require such a letter at home purchase closing, ensure that you leave ample time to complete the cleanup and gain final state approval.

The program offers state oversight through a Memorandum of Agreement in which the homeowner agrees to perform the cleanup and pay DEP oversight expenses. DEP, in turn, reviews cleanup activities and gives final approval at the conclusion.

 

ARE THERE ANY EXPENSES INVOLVED?

It is important that homeowners be aware of cost issues as they relate to cleanups:

Oversight Costs
The Voluntary Cleanup Program offers state oversight through a Memorandum of Agreement in which the homeowner agrees to perform the cleanup and pay DEP oversight costs. DEP receives no state funding to cover costs for this oversight. Costs must be borne by those who require the service.

For your convenience, as an alternative to completing a MOA Application, a fixed cost of $500 has been established for the review of remedial action reports covering removal of leaking underground storage tanks not regulated by N.J.A.C. 7:14B, as long as discharges from these tanks have not impacted ground water.

For more information concerning this alternative, contact the Division of Remediation Support, Fiscal Support Services at (609) 292-2943.

Insurance
As soon as there is evidence of a leak discovered, you should file a claim with your insurance company. Most policies require at least 'prompt' notice of a claim, as well as your assistance in providing information to the insurer. Insurance coverage for cleanup of contamination from leaking residential tanks depends on the language of the individual policy and its interpretation.

Also, you may want to consider underground storage tank protection programs that may be available from your oil company or fuel oil distributor to insure yourself against future problems.

Financial Assistance
Grant and loan programs are available from the State to provide financial aid for cleanup costs. To find out if you are eligible, contact the Division of Remediation Support, Bureau of Contract and Fund Management at (609) 777-0101.

Additional information is available at www.nj.gov/dep/srp/publications/brochures/homeowner

 

WHAT YOU CAN DO

  • If you are choosing a new home heating system, consider an alternative to an underground storage tank.
  • If you select an underground storage tank, be certain the tank is properly sited, constructed and installed.
  • If you have an underground storage tank, check for signs of leakage and have it checked periodically.
  • If a leak or spill happens, report it immediately to local authorities and the DEP Action Line at 1-877-WARN DEP (1-877-927-6337). This toll-free number can be used in the New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware calling areas.
 
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Last Updated: June 8, 2012