Heating oil tanks endanger drinking water

Like today’s developing countries, rapidly growing post-Civil War American cities endured cholera and other water-born diseases stemming from a lack of clean drinking water.These conditions inspired the 19th century sanitation movement that established municipal systems to provide safe drinking water.

Americans can now trust their tap water.

Our communities go to great lengths to assure this. New York City, which draws its water from the Hudson River valley, faced difficult choices in recent years because of the contamination threat from sprawling development in the outlying watersheds.

The city could could have built a multibillion-dollar water filtration plant to capture pollutants, or manage growth and land use in the rural areas. Comparing the cost of farmland and open space conservation measures against an expensive treatment plant, conservation was the obvious cost-effective choice, both for the city and the countryside.

Maine’s ample lakes and aquifers provide plenty of clean surface and groundwater. There’s so much that Mainers may take clean water supplies for granted. Yet, like New York City and many other states, run-off pollution from sprawling development is a common risk to those supplies.

Among contaminants likely to cause problems, the most prevalent is home heating fuel oil leaks from above ground storage tanks (AST) — an average of 1.4 spills per day.

There are 27 public drinking water supplies with at least one AST oil facility (not including home heating oil tanks) within the so-called public wellhead protection area. Another 157 supplies have ASTs within 1,000 feet of a public well. Many more ASTs are located in close proximity to private wells.

The risks to drinking water are as staggering as the costs for remediation are high.

From 2000 to 2006, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection had to replace 265 oil contaminated private wells. About 60 percent of these required the construction of a replacement community water system or the extension of a public water line. This solution was required in communities such as Madawaska, Oquossoc, Searsmont, St. Francis and Tenants Harbor.

Discharges in a wellhead protection area are more expensive to clean up than other locations and consume a disproportionate share of the department’s remediation funding.

Over the 10-year period from 1994 to 2004, the department spent $7.3 million on AST oil spills (not including home heating fuel tanks). Home heating oil tank and piping leaks also pose a substantial risk. And since Maine is more dependent on heating oil than most states, the risks to our water supplies are higher.

Nearly 418,000 households store heating oil in their basement or in an outside tank.

Leaks are frequent and costly.

From 2000 to 2005, about 3,000 home heating oil tank systems leaked. The clean-up cost was more than $10 million or an average of $1.7 million per year.

In Rumford, for example, the Maine DEP spent more than $600,000 to clean up two home heating oil tank leaks in a subdivision on a sand and gravel aquifer providing water to the town.

A $3 million tab was paid in the Portland Water District when two wells serving 2,000 residents in North Windham had to be abandoned and replaced after a state-of-the-art underground storage tank had a very small spill.

The list of spills is long and may continue to grow if Maine does not put protections in place.

Currently, the state and DEP have no authority to regulate the location of larger AST oil facilities, or most other hazardous waste generating facilities in proximity to public and private drinking water wells.

The risk to health and property values for homeowners also extends to the general public, municipalities and the state.

This risk can be greatly reduced by establishing the rules proposed by LD 2073, An Act to Prevent Contamination of Drinking Water Supplies, calling for special fuel spill precautions within 1,000 feet of a public drinking water well.

Under discussion this week by the Natural Resources Committee, the bill will reach the floor of the House and Senate within a month. Around the world and here in Maine, drinking water is our most important resource. Expressing your support for LD 2073 will help assure its passage and protect your drinking water and property values as well.

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