DNREC helping property owners remove old underground fuel tanks

When property owners switch from oil heat to gas or electric for home use, their underground storage tanks (USTs) are sometimes left in the ground — many times with fuel oil still inside them. Over time, the tanks rust and begin leaking their contents into soil. Eventually, a property owner becomes aware of leaking fuel oil, whether by smelling it in their basement, or tasting it in their water if they have their own drinking water well.

That’s when DNREC’s Tank Management Section often gets a call for help. And such calls are frequent: Since 2009, DNREC’s Emergency Response Section has responded to hundreds of leaks, costing tens of thousands of dollars to clean up.

But help for homeowners and others with leaking, unregulated, heating fuel USTs is on the way. Citing the prevalence of old and disused USTs throughout the state, the Tank Management Section recently initiated a heating fuel Underground Storage Tank Closure Assistance Program to assist property owners with removal or proper closing off of their underground storage tanks if left in place.

The new program is funded by the state’s Hazardous Substance Cleanup Act (HSCA) Fund and administered by DNREC’s Tank Management Section. Delaware Gov. Jack Markell has been a proponent of the program from the outset, having signed into law amendments to the Delaware Underground Storage Tank Act last October authorizing the funding for it.

“While often small in size, these forgotten underground storage tanks can cause significant environmental damage to the underlying soil and groundwater,” Markell said. “The program will help eliminate a serious environmental threat to many homeowners and their communities, while also reducing expensive cleanup costs.”

Many residential and businesses properties in Delaware still use oil heat and have a heating fuel tank buried underground. Other properties have long-forgotten, abandoned USTs. Typically, the tanks were installed more than 30 years ago and are now past their expected service life.

DNREC’s new assistance program covers the cost for the removal or closure in-place of eligible heating fuel USTs; and also includes soil sampling and analysis, over-excavation and disposal of up to 22 tons of petroleum-impacted soil. Additionally, the program provides site restoration to the extent practicable, subject to statutory limitations and availability of funds.

DNREC Secretary David Small called the Heating Fuel UST Closure Assistance Program “consistent with the DNREC’s mission to be protective of human health, safety and Delaware’s precious environment — by providing limited funding to remove, or close in place, existing unregulated heating fuel USTs, before they have the opportunity to cause a release into the environment.”

Two of the first homeowners taking advantage of the new program — Steven Zabowski of Newark and Bill Nicholson from Wilmington — had high praise for the program.

“Every house in my neighborhood still has a fuel oil tank from the 1970s,” Zabowski said, noting that, with half the properties still relying on groundwater wells, the new program ensures that “we do this right, get it done and not leave environmental problems for future generations.”

Nicholson said he was especially happy about the new program after he was directed to it by DNREC’s Emergency Response Section, which was acting on a call about petroleum vapor intrusion in his home from an old, abandoned UST directly outside his dining room. When he purchased the home 21 years ago, he said, he was not aware that there was a UST on the property.

Nicholson applauded DNREC’s Emergency Response Team for quick response to the spill incident and for providing information about the new program — and also the Tank Management Section staff and DNREC-approved subcontractors who subsequently helped with the tank removal and cleanup.

“Everyone has been so responsive, thorough, knowledgeable and helpful in covering every base in the process,” he said. “Most assuring when you have a problem like this at your home.”

Amy Bryson, who administers the UST removal and closure assistance program for the Division of Waste & Hazardous Substances’ Tank Management Section, said the program also is aimed at homeowners’ environmental awareness.

“In the past, property owners didn’t think of the potential environmental and safety hazards associated with leaving a UST in the ground,” she said. “Our goal is to help property owners in Delaware remove as many of these problematic tanks from the ground as possible.”

What’s not covered by the new assistance program? Heating fuel USTs greater than 1,100 gallons, replacement costs for new USTs, aboveground storage tanks (ASTs), or other heating sources (e.g., propane, natural gas, etc.) or equipment (heaters, boilers, etc.).

Also, in some cases, soil contamination may exceed established action levels, and additional investigation and/or cleanup may be required in accordance with the UST regulations. The program does not cover costs associated with additional investigation and/or cleanup. The program does not cover site-restoration activities, such as replacement of hardscaping, landscaping, decking, etc.. that may have been removed or damaged to perform the UST closure activities. Therefore, property owners may be responsible for those additional costs.

For more information and a program application, homeowners and other interested parties should visit www.dnrec.delaware.gov/dwhs/tanks/Pages/Heating-Fuel-UST-Closure-Assista.... Upon receipt of a completed application, the Tank Management Section will determine if the underground tank in question is eligible for the program. The Tank Management Section will then notify the applicant of the eligibility determination and assign a DNREC-certified UST closure contractor to perform the UST closure and limited site restoration.