Editorial: Old oil tanks are lurking monsters

Never mind the scary creatures you imagine are lurking under your bed — a truly frightening monster is the one that might be lurking under your lawn. Aging underground oil tanks are a major risk to the environment and homeowners’ bank accounts.

The province and municipalities should collaborate to work out standards and procedures to prevent and deal with this serious environmental problem.

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The Gorge Waterway has been contaminated by several oil spills in the past year, the most recent last week, which allowed 1,000 litres of heating oil to enter the storm-drain system and make its way to the Gorge. Quick work by Esquimalt workers and helpful rains to flush the oil out of the storm system prevented damage to the Gorge ecosystem.

Last week’s leak came from an oil tank in good shape, and it seems the culprit is a rodent that chewed through a copper line connecting the tank to a home. Most leaks, however, come from old oil tanks that have corroded, allowing their contents to leak into the ground, the home and waterways.

When that happens, the homeowner is on the hook for the cleanup and remediation costs, which can run to many thousands of dollars. Homeowner insurance policies generally don’t cover that damage. That means people can be financially ruined by a situation out of their control and, in some cases, they weren’t aware of.

Residential heating oil has been used on Vancouver Island for decades. As other heating sources such as electricity, propane and natural gas became available, some underground oil storage tanks were abandoned. Tanks were designed to last 20 or 25 years, after which they begin to deteriorate.

“The B.C. fire code requires the removal of buried tanks which are of no further use, or have not been used for two years,” says a fact sheet provided by the District of Saanich. “Once a tank is removed, the surrounding soil must be assessed for contamination.” Any such contamination must be cleaned up by a qualified contractor.

Homeowners are responsible for checking for oil tanks on their property, and for ensuring the tanks are decommissioned according to Environment Ministry regulations. People buying older homes are advised to include a condition of sale that requires the vendor to check for old oil tanks and pay for any removal and cleanup.

Even so, some oil tanks go undetected, with the potential to spring nasty surprises on unsuspecting property owners. The provincial government will pay for some cleanup costs if it can be proven that the homeowner “innocently acquired” the site, that is, if he or she had no way of knowing or suspecting the property was contaminated, and made the appropriate inquiries about previous uses of the site.

But that provincial assistance would not likely cover all the costs, and the property owner would be liable for the major part of the expense.

For several years, the University of Victoria Environmental Law Clinic, working with several other groups, has been pushing for new measures on the part of provincial and local governments, including mandatory regular inspection of tank systems, minimum physical standards for heating-oil systems and maximum lifespans for heating-oil tanks.

It would also be worthwhile for the Capital Regional District to initiate an effort to locate and map all unused underground oil tanks, and ensure they are properly decommissioned.

These measures would come at some cost, but those costs would be a fraction of what it costs to remediate the damage from a major spill.

And what is major? “One cup of fuel oil can contaminate enough water to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool,” notes the Saanich fact sheet.

What lies beneath can be terrifying.

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