Careful, Careful: How Underground Oil Tanks are Removed Without Polluting the Environment

Most oil tanks weren’t designed to be buried  

Rust never sleeps. It’s a Neil Young classic album, which many interpret as a metaphor for artistic vitality – without growth you’re vulnerable to the corrosive effects of age.

One thing’s for sure. Whether it’s a metaphor or not, rust truly doesn’t sleep. It’s the cause of corrosion for all steel underground oil tanks. According to professional environmental services company Curren, eventually, all steel tanks will corrode and leak. It’s why they must be carefully removed so that they don’t end up contaminating the surrounding soil or groundwater. Here’s how it’s usually handled.

Expensive consequences

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the average cleanup cost as a result of an oil spill from a damaged or corroded commercial oil tank is $130,000. It can cost tens of thousands of dollars for a smaller residential oil tank. For this reason, the EPA says that the best approach is to prevent contamination by underground oil tanks before they happen.

There’s an additional concern for homeowners. Your homeowner’s insurance policy may not cover the cost of damages and clean-up fees. Check to see if your policy contains what’s known as an absolute pollution exclusion cause. If it does, you’re not covered.

Is your oil tank leaking?

According to Smart Touch Energy, a heating oil provider, nearly 6 million American homes still rely on oil heating systems. The oil tank is usually located in a home’s basement, or it’s buried underground next to the dwelling.

It’s easy to know if a basement oil tank has developed a leak. You’ll smell it even if you don’t see it. Tanks buried outdoors can develop pinhole-sized leaks over time as the steel corrodes. The amount of oil released into the surrounding soil is small – often not even enough for a homeowner to have an idea of the problem. By the time the corrosion is significant enough to notice that oil usage is increasing, it’s likely that you’ve got a problem on your hands.

Often, homeowners remain unaware of a leak from an underground oil tank until they undertake a renovation or even decide to put in a swimming pool. The unearthed soil will have a strong oil smell.

Getting rid of that oil tank

Home expert Bob Vila tells readers that while natural gas heating systems are more expensive than oil systems, the natural gas heaters are more efficient, so they’ll recoup the cost of replacement more quickly. Replacing an oil system also allows you to get away from the expensive possibility of having to pay for the damages caused by an old leaking underground oil tank.

Proper excavation and disposal are not only crucial, but it may also be mandated depending on where you live. Here’s the biggest concern for any homeowner. Oil tanks on commercial properties are regulated by the EPA. An underground oil tank on your residential property is exempt from these federal regulations – mainly because most underground oil tanks were put in place before the EPA began to regulate underground storage tank systems (UST) in the 1980s. The problem – and it’s a big one – occurs if the tank has corroded and oil has contaminated the surrounding soil or even the water table. You may be held liable for the cost of cleanup and remediation.

In the state of New Jersey, there are specific steps you must follow – especially if there’s evidence of a leak. According to the State of New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), you must report a heating oil discharge regardless of the quantity.

Work with a capable contractor

It will be your responsibility to engage a qualified contractor to remove the tank and any contaminated soil. You’ll also be responsible for any remediation necessary to the surrounding area. DEP recommends that you work with a contractor who knows and follows the regulations the state has in place for this work.

Another reason why you should work with a licensed contractor is that there will be required local construction permits. A contractor familiar with the state requirements will also take care of providing the excavation site soil samples that DEP requires to determine that any contaminated material has been removed. The tank itself must be removed following proper state guidelines, as well as recommended practices by the American Petroleum Institute.

If the DEP is satisfied that all steps have been taken to remove the oil tank and any resulting pollution, the department will provide you with a no further action letter. This is a crucial final step because the letter may be required if you sell your home in the future. Learn more about how we help homeowners successfully move through the required steps for residential tank removal.