The 500-gallon fuel-oil tank buried in Joan Fitzgerald’s yard in Clifton is lifted out of the ground by a backhoe. There are holes in the bottom of the tank, dark stains in the dirt, and the odor of petroleum in the air.
Fitzgerald’s tank is only one of an estimated 100,000 fuel-oil storage tanks buried underground across New Jersey. Clifton’s building inspector, Earl Karlen, says “maybe 50 percent of the old tanks -- they do have holes, they do leak.”
Serious cases, where plumes of contamination ride groundwater channels far beyond the tank pits, require extensive and expensive excavation. In Fitzgerald’s case, the cleanup will cost an estimated $200,000, with perhaps half covered by insurance.
Homeowners can’t sell their property without certification that their soil is clean; banks won’t offer mortgages on homes with underground oil tanks. The result in some cases is that owners just abandon their homes because they don’t have enough equity to cover the cleanup costs.
In attempt to ease the problem, the state Department of Environmental Protection is considering relaxing cleanup regulations for tanks of less than 2,000 gallons and requiring insurance companies to offer fuel-oil tank liability coverage.
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