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Did my Oil Tank Leak?

Jul 6, 2016 1:14:53 PM / by David C Sulock

Did my Oil Tank Leak?

Our office gets phone call everyday with just that question.  Did my oil tank leak?  These calls typically come from property owners who hired a company to remove a tank and on the day the tank is actually removed, the owner is now informed that the tank leaked and expensive remediation is required.   Some people even get a proposal on the same day or within a few days of tank removal for remediation.

A few things about human nature, when we are presented with a problem and more so when the problem can be expensive to solve, we want to know how to fix it and the cost.  Bottom line as humans we fear the unknown for the most part.  Pertaining to oil tanks, when we are told our tank leaked, our first response is what will it take to clean up the tank problem?  The answer is directly tied to important questions that 90% of the time is not known on the day of tank removal.

The question is two-fold.  First, did my tank leak and two is remediation is required?  To be clear, most environmental regulations consider evidence of a release as holes in a tank after removal, visible oil in the tank grave and soils in the excavation that exhibit olfactory (smell) indications of the presence of petroleum.  All three or any one of these is an indication that the tank leaked SOME oil.   With the exception of visible oil in the ground, holes in a tank or the smell of oil in the soils in a tank grave are not indications that remediation is mandatory. Not even a field meter that can detect Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) can determine if remediation is warranted during tank removal.    Why is that the case?  Well it is relative to the fact that there are standards for petroleum in soils.  These standards are based on EPA approved testing methods, meaning certified laboratory analysis.  The way you actually test soil is to acquire samples of soil and submit said samples to a State certified laboratory for analysis.  These laboratory sample results are then compared to applicable state mandated soil standards.  Testing normally takes about a week to complete on average.

The point being unless you have laboratory data defining the petroleum levels in the soils, you do not know if remediation is necessary.

Often time’s people assess oil tanks pertaining to liability incorrectly.   People perceive the presence of an oil tank as a liability, but when it is removed or filled in place, they believe it is a non-issue.   Oil tanks represent an environmental and financial liability for a property, because when tanks leak there is an expense involved to assess the leak and in certain situations the need to remediate.  The costs to remediate can easily run into the thousands of dollars.  The real concern is if the tank leaked, not if my property has or had an oil tank.  How do you answer if a tank leaked? This is answered by testing the soil below the tank by independent laboratory analysis with a written narrative of the tank work and an interpretation of lab testing results.   Just as you cannot ascertain a cholesterol level without testing nor can you determine if an oil tank has leaked without proper evaluation and testing.

Nobody wakes up and says I want to make bad decisions today, but it happens.  What increases your chances of making a bad decision is deciding on something where you have no prior expertise and the decision is a once in a lifetime decision.  A good example of a situation where you can make a bad decision is removing an oil tank. In making a decision regarding whom to hire to manage your tank project, consider the following pitfalls:

Tank Removal Red Flags

  1. Tank removal contract that assumes the tank is not leaking and provides no information regarding if the tank does leak. Let us agree any buried steel vessel will rust and eventually leak, it is a scientific fact that rust never sleeps.
  2. Tank removal contract that does not include soil sample acquisition and analysis and what the laboratory results will mean. If you were buying a house where an oil tank was removed, we would want you to have a report of the tank removal and soil test results, otherwise how do you 100% if the tank did not leak?
  3. A tank removal contact that does not specifically state that a report of the tank removal is included. To be fair, you are removing the tank to remove issues with the tank.  Wouldn’t a report of the tank removal be important to show a potential buyer?
  4. Being told that any tank leaks would be addressed on the day of removal, with no other explanation as to how? This is called hand stamping and is too vague.  This often leads to your back being against a wall and staring at an expensive contract to remediate.
  5. The vapor meter can tell us if the soil is good or bad during removal. Well the meter does tell you presence or absence, but there are no standards for field reading with a vapor meter.  Incidentally if you put perfume or cologne on and the meter was placed near your skin where the fragrance was applied the meter would light up with beeps and flashing lights.  However, they did not tell you that, oh and by the way you are not contaminated if that happens, just fragrant.
  6. On the day of removal, evidence of a leak is noted and you are told that soil sampling is not necessary. This happens so often and is so wrong.  That is absolutely the wrong advice; this is when soil sampling is most important.  Why, because for a couple hundred dollars soil samples can be acquired and you will know if remediation is necessary.  The plus side for you is you can manage a tank leak very cheaply; the bad side for the environmental company is that they cannot run up a big bill for work that is not needed. 
  7. You are told on the day of tank removal that remediation is required. How does the company know?   They just know, experience x-ray vision, some skill set a normal person does not possess.   Outside of oozing oil in the ground, the company does not know 100%.  Can your doctor predict cancer or heart issues from a visual assessment?   Can you look someone and know his or her cholesterol level?   If the company does not have laboratory testing completed, you will never know for sure.

These seven pitfalls should be avoided at all costs as you taking a path where you will be unpleasantly surprised.  All you need to do is google Oil tank Leak and you will be taken to some alarming web pages that extoll the problems and expensive of managing an oil tank leak.

So what do you do when you are told your oil tank leaked?

First, you ensure soil samples are acquired, two for tanks up to 550 gallons and three soil samples for tanks up to 1000 gallons.  The sample data is the only way to know if your petroleum levels in soil demand remediation.


Many firms will tell you that from experience and their observation they know that the tank leaked and you must remediate.  This is not correct without lab data.   However, let me flip the coin over; let us say that your tank removal company is moral and ethical and they take soil samples after the tank is removed.  These soil samples were acquired at say 6’ deep, as that was the bottom burial depth of the tank.   These samples are proven to have petroleum levels above State allowable limits, because of this you are presented with a cost to remediate.  What is this cost based on, well data from 6’ deep, because that is where the soil samples are from.  So how does the company know from just one sample location at 6’ how much soil they have to dig up?  The answer is they do not, the cost is a guess.  Oil spreads and is driven by gravity and rain to spread both horizontally and vertically.  Hey every spill a glass of liquid?  Liquid runs all over the place, may even favor a particular direction due to slope or direction of where the cup fell over.  My point being, how far oil has spread is unpredictable without doing further testing both deeper than where the tank was located as well as surrounding the area the area is unknown.  Every hire a contractor to give you a price for home improvement, maybe painting, kitchen or bathroom remodel.  This required a site visit to visually assess the situation.  Even then unknowns can pop up once walls start coming down.   Well after over 20 years in the environmental industry I cannot just look at the ground and determine the severity of the situation, nor can anyone else for that matter. 

The process of defining the extent of a tank leak is called delineation.  It is not unlike when someone is diagnosed with cancer.  Testing is done to define where the cancer has spread to so the doctor can apply the best method to treat the cancer.  Let us face it you would not jump into surgery without further testing or second opinions. Nor should you rely on a cost to remediate where the area is undefined.  You typically need five or more soil samples both deeper than the burial depth of the tank as well as around the tank grave to define an area, the number can actually increase if the leak is significant.

But hey this is just science, you have been told you have a tank leak and want a cost to remedy the situation.  But is the remedy appropriate?   Has the area been defined?  Is the company just trying to make more money? Still have questions?

We offer a free consultation to discuss your situation to make sure you are making the best decision possible.  888-301-1050

.Tank Leak Help

David C Sulock

Written by David C Sulock

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