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Homeowners face a fortune in cleanup bills after oil tank leak

WAREHAM, Mass. — It’s been about two and a half years since Brian and Emmaline Proctor moved into their starter home on 15th Street. Little did they know there was a quietly ticking time bomb in the basement.

Otherwise known as their oil tank.

On January 7th, Emmaline smelled petroleum in the house.

“I kept saying, it smells like a gas station in here,” she said.

That led Brian to the basement, where a reddish liquid covered the floor.

“This whole area was about three inches deep in fuel and it went all the way up to my boot laces,” he said. “I just saw a red pool. And then I went down the steps and I saw it was leaking from the tank.”

The Proctors, who have a 10-month-old daughter, Aria, and a second child on the way, called the fire department.

“I tried scrambling around to find some things to plug the hole,” Brian said. “The only thing I could come up with was a rubber glove and I sat here with my finger in the hole for half an hour waiting for the fire department to show up.”

In all, about 25 gallons of heating oil spilled onto the basement floor. The Wareham Fire Department used a kitty litter-like substance to absorb it up, as well as mats. But six weeks later, the odor of fuel remains -- and the Proctors have sealed off the area with plastic and are running a fan 24/7 to get rid of the smell.

“What I thought was going to happen was emergency services of some kind like emergency contractors were going to come out, clean up the oil, replace the tank and that would be the end of it,” Brian said. “I didn’t know I had to worry about contaminated soil, pollution, worrying about where it was going to go.”

What the Proctors also didn’t know is that their homeowners insurance contained something called a ‘pollution exclusion.’ Meaning their insurance company was not required to pay anything for the clean-up. This is not uncommon in Massachusetts, said Deirdre Cummings, consumer program director at MASSPIRG -- because most homeowners with oil heat are not told they can purchase insurance to cover leaks.

“The insurance companies are required to offer it to you if you ask but the consumer doesn’t necessarily know that they ought to ask,” Cummings said. “I think we’re really doing a disservice here by not requiring insurance companies to at least inform you -- they’re not going to require you to purchase it -- but to at least inform you that the option is available.”

Because the cost to clean up even small heating oil spills can be astronomical.

Already, the Proctors have spent about $20,000. But that could be just the beginning.

“We’ve been quoted, right now, a hundred and seventy five thousand from a contractor to clean this up,” Brian said.

Cummings said there is pending legislation that would require insurance companies to let consumers know the option to purchase pollution insurance is available. For now, she said, consumers are in the dark.

So what happened to cause the spill at the Proctors?

Brian learned the tank was manufactured in 2003. As to when it was installed, he doesn’t know that -- because a check with the Wareham Fire Department revealed the installer pulled no permit.

Regardless -- a tank of that age should have had more structural life in it.

“Because it’s in a weather-controlled environment above ground, stored inside, the average lifespan, from what all our experts have said is thirty to thirty-five years,” Brian said. “And it’s only eighteen, nineteen-years-old. It shouldn’t have failed at that age. They think it might have been improper manufacturing or something like that. Because it corroded fairly quickly for its age and the material that it’s made out of.”

The Proctors advice to other homeowners with oil tanks?

“Check your insurance policy,” Emmaline said.

Also, keep an eye on the age and condition of your tank.

To help pay the huge clean-up bills likely on the way, Emmaline’s cousin started a GoFundMe on behalf of the couple. You can donate here.

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