How can I find out if my inground oil tank is leaking?

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Although many homeowners are pro-actively taking out their inground home heating oil tank, it’s still legal to have one on your property. However, it must be properly maintained and monitored—or all bets are off. Once an oil tank leaks into the ground, you’re no longer exempt from the provisions of environmental regulation governing what’s viewed as uncontrolled discharges or releases into the environment. The problem with all oil tanks is that they corrode over time and, because the tank is buried, a leak can go unnoticed or undetected for a quite a while—long enough to cause significant problems if the oil leeches into the ground. If you have an underground oil tank at your home, you should always be on the lookout for leaks. If a leak occurs, you want to have the tank removed before any soil contamination occurs. Even if your tank hasn't leaked, when you go to sell your home, a buyer may want it removed as part of the sale.

Signs That Your Tank Is Leaking

There are signs that can alert you to a problem. Look for dead vegetation around the area where the oil tank is buried. Be aware of any odors near the tank as well as in your home—you can often smell oil that has leeched into soil. You should also regularly examine water samples from around the tank or in your sump pit if you have one. If heating oil is in the water sample, it will rise to the top—a clear sign of a leak.

For true confirmation, a simple tank test or soil test will be able to confirm a leak. Usually a trained technician will take a few soil samples from the ground around the tank for testing and give you a definite answer.

What To Do When A Leak Happens

If there’s a leak in your inground tank, the tank has to come out immediately and be replaced with another option, such as a new tank in your basement, so that you don’t risk oil leeching into the ground again. The contractor you hire must be very careful to inspect the surrounding area and work quickly to reduce the spread of contamination. If the leak occurred close to a public or private well or water source, you’ll need to report it immediately to your local environmental protection agency.

Whether or not it has leaked, there are state regulations that will need to be followed for the proper removal of an inground oil tank. Before hiring a contractor, make sure that he or she is properly trained to do the job—in some states that may include hazmat training. When removing the tank, your contractor should comply with both American Petroleum Institute (API) standards and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations as well as any additional requirements mandated by your state. One or more types of permits may be necessary before work can start. It’s crucial that the job be done properly—if not, you could have serious long-term problems that run the gamut of being sued by neighbors if their groundwater gets affected to being unable to sell your house.

Once the tank is removed and prepared for disposal, the soil will be tested to see how deep any leak has gone. Depending on what’s found and your state’s requirements, a remediation company may need to be hired to properly remove and dispose of contaminated soil. As with the tank itself, there are strict guidelines for where and how this soil must be treated.

Photo: Courtesy of Shore Environmental.