The heating-oil tank at your house may pose a major threat to local salmon streams - and to your fiscal well-being. There ought to be a law.
Last November, a home-heating system spilled more than 1,000 litres of oil into Swan Creek and Colquitz River during the salmon run. Dorothy Chambers, a Colquitz stewardship volunteer, described the results:
"The fish fence is saturated with reeking oil and all of today's coho are dead. What a sight for the families who came to watch the salmon release. Twenty-four large dead coho in three days, carrying eggs which will not hatch and will affect this run for years to come."
Meanwhile, the homeowner faced a potential cleanup bill of more than $60,000.
That November spill was not an anomaly. Two months later, a fuel company pumped oil into a Saanich basement through an oil supply pipe that had been left when the old tank was removed. The oil contaminated the property and ran into the storm sewers, which connect to local water bodies. Just three weeks after that, another 634 litres of oil spilled into Colquitz River from a ruptured fuel line on yet another home-oil tank system.
By March of this year, the Saanich director of public works described the problem posed by six heating oil spills in Saanich in just six months, stating: "Responding to oil spills has become almost full-time for our drainage guys since November." Unfortunately, such spills find their way into municipal storm sewers and, eventually, into local streams.
A big part of the problem is that heating-oil tanks and plumbing are getting old, rusting out and failing. The other part of the problem is that current law fails to prevent these accidents.
This is why the University of Victoria Environmental Law Clinic has worked with the Gorge Tillicum Community Association to propose a solution to this important environmental challenge. Based on a review of what other jurisdictions have done to address the problem, the clinic recommends that the province and local governments legislate:
? Mandatory regular inspection of tank systems.
? Establishment of government-issued ID tag systems that confirm a tank and system is in good shape and not obsolete. Delivery of fuel to tanks without a valid tag should be prohibited.
? Minimum physical standards for tanks and plumbing, and maximum life spans for heating-oil tanks.
? A requirement that installers of new home heating systems ensure that existing oil tanks are properly decommissioned. Note that this is not just an environmental problem. It is also a serious issue for any homeowner who has an oil tank on their property. Most homeowner insurance policies do not cover such oil spills, and these spills can be extraordinarily expensive. For example, in one recent B.C. spill, the property owner faced a clean-up cost of more than $200,000. Such accidents have the potential to bankrupt a family.
Government should consider making oil companies pay for spills when the company has filled a flawed tank. This would provide companies with a powerful incentive to carefully check before they pump oil into a system. In addition, B.C. should establish a public insurance fund - paid for by a surcharge on fuel - to pay for spills from the property of homeowners who register their tanks with government. In Washington state, such a system helps authorities keep track of where old tanks are so they can be properly decommissioned when the time comes.
With appropriate law reform, we can work together to address this important threat to the environment and to unsuspecting homeowners.
Calvin Sandborn is legal director and Naomi Kovak and Trevor Johnson are articled students at the UVic Environmental Law Clinic.
The Environmental Law Clinic and the Gorge Tillicum Community Association are co-hosting a public forum on this issue on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the UVic Faculty of Law, Room 159. Homeowners, local and provincial officials, community groups and oil companies are invited to debate this important public issue.
© Copyright 2013