A leaking fuel oil tank can become a serious fire and environmental hazard. Whether the tank is located inside or outside the home, a spill can contaminate groundwater affecting private wells or other nearby drinking water supplies.
One cup of fuel oil can contaminate enough water to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool, and in many cases hundreds of litres of oil seep into the ground before a spill is discovered.
Fuel oil that has spilled into a residential basement can also pose a serious health hazard, threatening indoor air quality.
Anyone who owns a fuel oil tank has a legal responsibility to properly maintain it and to clean up any spills or leaks that may occur. Homeowners are also responsible under the Environmental Protection Act for reporting any leak or spill from a tank that could cause property damage or health, safety or environmental problems.
Cleaning up a spill from a home heating oil tank is an expensive exercise. The removal of oil from a basement, or the cleanup of contaminated soil and water can often cost more than the property is worth, and damage may not be fully covered by homeowner insurance.
Having a tank installed only by a registered contractor and inspecting it regularly can help avoid the problems associated with oil spills and leakage.
Homeowners are required to ensure their tanks are CSA or ULC approved, properly installed and accessible for inspection.
Taking the following steps can help avoid problems and ensure safe usage of a fuel oil tank.
– Inspect tank at least once a year.
– Replace tank periodically.
– Empty any unused tanks
Inspecting an oil tank Typical 1000 litre fuel oil tank
1. Are the tank legs unstable or on a shaky foundation?
2. Are there any signs of rust, weeping, wet spots or dents on the tank?
3. Is the tank blackened at the low end, around the drain? (This may be an indication of water in the tank, and resultant corrosion inside the tank.
4. Are there any drips or signs of leakage around the fuel line, filter or valves?
5. Is there danger of snow or ice falling on the tank?
6. Is the vent clogged or restricted because of snow, ice or insect nests? (Screened vents can help prevent insect nest problems.)
7. Is the vent whistle silent when the tank is being filled? (Ask the fuel delivery person.)
8. Are there signs of leakage or spills around the fill pipe or vent pipe?
9. Is the fuel-level gauge cracked, stuck or frozen? Are there signs of oil around it?
10. If mounted outdoors, is the tank rated for outdoor use?
11. What is the age of the tank? (Not usually indicated until after 1998.)
REMEMBER THESE FUEL OIL FACTS
– More than 40% of all oil spills reported annually are from domestic oil tanks at private homes.
– One cup of fuel oil can contaminate enough water to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool.
– Homeowner insurance may not cover all costs of a cleanup.
– Cleanup of contaminated soil and water can often cost more than a property is worth.
Handling spills and leaks
Homeowners should take the following steps as soon as a spill or leak is discovered.
1. Eliminate all sources of ignition.
2. Stop the leak, if it can be done without risk.
3. Contact fuel oil supplier or heating contractor for assistance.
4. Contain spilled oil using whatever materials are available (pails, rags, newspapers, peat moss, kitty litter, absorbant pads, sheets of plastic, etc.) Do not flush spilled oil or contaminated materials down the floor drain or sewer, nor into a septic system.
5. Notify the Ontario Ministry of the Environment Spills Action Centre (SAC) if the spill causes or is likely to cause, adverse effects such as ground or surface water contamination, or damage to a neighbor’s property. SAC provides 24-hour assistance for spill situations.
6. Transfer any remaining oil from the leaking tank to a sound tank or other approved container, made of leak-proof material, such as a 45 gallon drum.
7. Clean up spilled oil and any contaminated soild or materials and place in appropriate containers such as plastic pails and sturdy garbage bags. For large spills, a professional cleanup contractor may be required.
8. Properly dispose of any recovered oil, contaminated soil and other contaminated materials and containers. Municipal works departments and the Ministry of the Environment can provide information on acceptable waste management practices.
9. Homeowners should contact their insurance agent as soon as possible.
When fully implemented, newly amended provincial regulations will ensure that fuel oil tanks are installed and inspected by licensed persons and tanks are replaced periodically depending upon tank design.
Affordable and effective secondary containment to protect against leaking fuel oil tanks is available in the form of ULC approved geo-membrane bags, such as the S.Bag – a sort of oil tank diaper that will contain any spills during tank re-fuelling or from leaks.
For more information on residential fuel oil tanks and Ontario laws governing them, please contact:
Technical Standards and Safety Authority (TSSA)
Fuels Safety Division
3300 Bloor St. W.
4th Floor, West Tower
Toronto, ON M8X 2X4
To report spills or to obtain more information on spill cleanup procedures, please contact:
Ministry of the Environment
Spills Action Centre (SAC)
or (416) 325-3500
In other provinces, check the government listings in the local telephone directory to locate the appropriate department. To obtain immediate assistance, contact your fuel supplier or heating contractor, or a licensed professional cleanup service.