Survival Tip 11: Responding to Spills of Home Heating Oil
by Steven De Lisi
It’s winter and first responders in many parts of the country will once again be faced with incidents at residential occupancies that involve spills of heating oil. Perhaps an aboveground tank was overfilled by an inattentive delivery driver, or a tank that is placed on cinderblocks topples over due to the weight of the liquid. There are other occasions when a home will receive an automatic delivery at the start of each heating season, yet since the last time the tank was filled, the homeowner had installed a heat pump and removed the heating oil tank from his basement (but not the fill pipe) without informing the delivery company. The result could be several hundred gallons of oil pumped into the basement of the residence.
Another scenario includes situations when the fill pipe for an underground storage tank is broken off at the base and the tank fills with water during a heavy rainstorm. The result is a fast spreading oil slick that appears on the ground as the tank fills with water and displaces the oil.
During any incident that involves home heating oil spilled inside of a residence (including the crawl space underneath a residence), first responders should give careful consideration to any decision that allows occupants to remain inside. Besides the potential for a fire hazard, the vapors produced by the oil can have varying health affects on the occupants and on firefighters. First responders entering a building exposed to vapors from home heating oil should always consider the use of SCBA and take efforts to control ignition sources. They should also anticipate that indoor spills can enter floor drains and when this occurs, they must determine if these drains are connected to the local sewer system or perhaps nearby septic tanks.
For spills that occur outdoors, first responders should be prepared to use available resources in order to contain the release from spreading to nearby exposures. Remember that exposures include those below the surface, such as wells for domestic water supplies and septic systems. Even underground utility cables can be damaged if they become soaked with oil. Use caution if attempting to dig a retention area in soil to contain spilled liquid, since underground utilities, including electrical and gas lines, could be located dangerously close to the surface.
During severe weather, especially heavy rains, efforts to contain spills of home heating oil outdoors will be difficult, if not impossible. With this scenario, an oily sheen from the spilled fuel may spread across property lines, and as a result, the impact on neighboring occupancies must be assessed.
Stopping a release from a damaged or overturned tank will likely require the skills and equipment possessed by hazardous material teams. However, first responders should not be surprised if they encounter employees from a fuel oil delivery company who are attempting to use makeshift means to stop a release from an aboveground tank with little regard for their own personal safety. Despite the best intentions of these individuals, first responders should discourage this type of activity.
Cleanup related to spills of home heating oil that occur outdoors will likely require the removal of several inches of contaminated soil. Indoor spills may require vacuuming or use of absorbent pads to remove product, and perhaps even the removal of porous surfaces that allow the fuel to be absorbed, such as concrete floors found in basements and garages.
Regardless of the extent of cleanup required, the important point for first responders to remember is that it should not be their responsibility to figure out how the cleanup should be done, who will conduct the cleanup, who will pay for it, and then ultimately to determine when cleanup efforts are adequate and the scene rendered safe. Instead, these questions are best answered by representatives from various regulatory agencies, including those responsible for the environment and public health. First responders may even consider involving the local fire marshal if there are concerns related to code compliance regarding installation of heating equipment.
Financial liability for cleanup and scene restoration often rests with the responsible party. However, the responsible party may not always be just the fuel oil delivery company, but it could also be the property owner or even a tenant for rental property. The debate over just who is “responsible” can be complicated and it is best for first responders to stay out of this argument.
When dealing with cleanup issues, don’t be surprised if employees from the company delivering the heating oil either attempt to downplay the severity of the incident or attempt to conduct cleanup on their own rather than use a cleanup contractor. While allowing the oil company to conduct its own cleanup may seem like a simple solution, determining if employees from the company are legally qualified to conduct cleanup operations may require the involvement of state occupational safety representatives. Furthermore, their plans for disposal of contaminated material (such as absorbent pads or soil), must be done in accordance with applicable regulations. Once again, representatives from regulatory agencies should be the ones to determine if the company is qualified, not first responders.
While contacting individuals from different regulatory agencies may take some time to coordinate, the extra effort is worth it since it reduces the liability of the fire department should any problems arise later on. First responders should know how to contact these representatives after normal business hours, and on holidays and weekends. Remember that spills of home heating oil that occur on a late Friday evening can’t wait until Monday morning to be resolved.
Remember too that if first responders take it upon themselves to contact a cleanup contractor, they may also receive the bill. Therefore, decisions regarding selection of a cleanup contractor and financial liability should be left up to the responsible parties and the regulatory agencies discussed earlier.
When responding to incidents that involve spills of home heating oil, be smart, be safe, and remember, everyone goes home!
- Has your department responded to incidents involving spills of home heating oil when members of the department became involved in cleanup activities or when their decisions resulted in financially liable for the cleanup? What were the outcomes?
- Has your department responded to incidents involving spills of home heating oil when first responders became ill following exposure to the vapors from the spilled material? How did these exposures occur and what were the outcomes?
- Do members of your department know how to contact representatives from the following agencies during incidents that involve spills of home heating oil:
- Environmental Protection
- Public Health
- Fire Marshal (local or state)
- Occupational Safety
Could they contact these individuals at night or on weekends and holidays?
Click here for more info on Steven De Lisi’s book, Hazardous Materials Incidents: Surviving the Initial Response.
Steven M. De Lisi is a 26-year veteran of the fire service and is currently Deputy Chief for the Virginia Air National Guard Fire Rescue located at the Richmond International Airport. De Lisi is a Hazardous Materials Specialist and chairman of the Virginia Fire Chiefs Association’s Hazardous Materials Committee. He is also an adjunct instructor for the Virginia Department of Fire Programs and a former member of the NFPA committee on hazardous materials protective clothing. De Lisi began his career in hazardous materials response in 1982 as a member of the HAZMAT team with the Newport News (VA) Fire Department. Since then, he has also served as a Hazardous Materials Officer for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and in that capacity provided on-scene assistance to first responders involved with hazardous materials incidents in an area that included more than 20 local jurisdictions.