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It’s an Environmental Problem That Simply Can’t Be Covered Up

More than half of underground fuel-oil tanks are leaking, often resulting in prohibitively costly cleanups of contaminated soil

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.”

LITTLE DIRTY LITTLE

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.

Read the full report by NJTV, a content partner of NJ Spotlight.

This story is part of Dirty Little Secrets, a series investigating New Jersey’s toxic legacy. Participating news partners include New Jersey Public Radio/WNYC, WHYY, NJTV, NJ Spotlight, Jersey Shore Hurricane News, WBGO, New Brunswick Today, and the Rutgers Department of Journalism and Media Studies. The collaboration is facilitated by The Center for Investigative Reporting, with help from the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State and support from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation to CIR.

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