The Importance of Hiring an Environmental Consultant For Leaking NYC Heating Oil Tanks

Most buildings in New York City have fuel oil-fired burners to supply heat and hot water. The heating oil can range from #2 oil which is similar to diesel fuel to #6 fuel oil which is heavy and thick. Buildings typically store the fuel in storage tanks located in basements or beneath the sidewalk. The tanks typically range in size from 3,000- to 20,000-gallon capacity.

These tanks are subject to a plethora of federal, state and local regulations. Some tanks rest on bare soil while others are located within concrete vaults. A tank located in a basement could be regulated as an underground storage tank under some circumstances which means it could be subject to periodic testing and other performance standards.

All tank systems can eventually develop leaks in the fill lines or the tank itself that result in significant soil and groundwater contamination. Even though most of NYC does not use groundwater for drinking water, the NYSDEC vigorously regulates heating oil tanks. The agency has commenced numerous enforcement actions against residential buildings for failing to properly register tanks, report spills and remediating contamination. Indeed, a number of multi-family buildings in NYC have been required to pay in excess of $1MM for tank violations and cleanup.

One of the recurring themes I have seen in the cases involving significant fines or cleanup costs has been when the property or building management has hired a “tank” company to repair a failed tank system. The building managers believe that the “tank” company will deal with all of the issues associated with the failed tank system and are then shocked when they get a notice of a hefty fine from NYSDEC for failing to properly close out a spill.

Most “tank” companies only deal with the mechanical and physical aspects of the tank system-that is, cutting up and removing the old tank system, and installing the new system. These companies rarely deal with or have the expertise to deal with the NYSDEC requirements such as sampling protocols, closure reports, etc.

Thus, when responding to a tank failure or spill, NYC building managers should determine if their tank contractor has the experience and expertise to satisfy the NYSDEC requirements. I believe the prudent approach would be to limit the “tank” companies to what they do best- repair and replace the physical tank system and leave the environmental issues to the environmental experts. Even if your tank contractor says they can comply with NYSDEC requirements, it would still be advisable to retain an environmental consultant to supervise the work. I have seen a number of situations where the tank companies excavated  more soil than necessary and then charged clients for much higher disposal costs on a per ton basis than was required. I have also seen tank companies lease temporary tanks to building owners and extend the cleanup process to maximize the rental costs. A good environmental consultant often can save building managers more in costs than their fees. It is usually a good investment.

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