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November 27, 2012

Keep up-to-date on condition of fuel-oil tank

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The Daily Star

---- — Former Oneonta residents Rob Kamerling and Cynthia Marsh Kamerling had a lot to be thankful for this past Thanksgiving — family, friends, good health and a new community near Boulder, Colo. 

The day of thanks, however, was marred by the knowledge that their former home in the town of Oneonta remains uninhabitable because of fumes from a fuel-oil leak more than a year ago.

And if that isn’t enough of a nightmare, the Kamerlings recently received correspondence from the state attorney general’s office demanding payment of about $32,000 by Dec. 7 for costs associated with cleanup of the leak.

If payment is not made by that date, the letter says, the state may seek penalties up to $25,000 per day, court costs, a collection fee of up to 22 percent of the outstanding debt and interest.

It’s not that the Kamerlings don’t want to pay for the cleanup; they just think there are other sides to the story that don’t seem right. So, they are examining their options.

Sitting down over coffee last week, Rob said they are trying to keep their problem in perspective. Some people lose their homes to hurricanes, floods and fire, he said, so he realizes their misfortune may seem minor in comparison. But he also understands that what happened to them could happen to anyone with a fuel-oil tank.

It all started about a year and a half ago when they moved to Colorado and put the 1880s farmhouse on Glen Drive they bought in 2005 on the sale market. By fall, Rob said, they had accepted an offer for purchase. That’s when the troubles began.

The Kamerlings agreed to allow the prospective buyers to move into the home while awaiting the formal closing. Shortly thereafter, the buyers had the fuel-oil tank in the home’s basement filled so they could heat the house. Then, about a week later, on Nov. 3, 2011, Rob said, he received an urgent call about a strong odor of fuel oil coming from the basement.

All 250 gallons of fuel oil had leaked from the tank into the basement, which was partially dirt floor, so much of the oil apparently had escaped into the ground and leached outside the home. The spill was reported to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, and the regional spill manager was dispatched to the home. 

Rob said the DEC immediately called an environmental mitigation contractor who advised that they call their insurance company to get authorization for the state to mitigate the spill.

“Our insurance company instructed us to approve the mitigation without delay,” he said.

So they did, and after contractors removed the concrete floor and seven tons of earth, it was confirmed that about 150 gallons of the oil had escaped and eventually reached a nearby ditch that led to a small stream. The mitigation also included stopping the flow of oil and covering the basement with a new layer of concrete.

The result was a bill from the DEC for $31,960, and the prospective buyers were released from their offer, so the sale of the house was off. 

Meanwhile, the insurance company had sent an engineer to inspect the tank, which had been removed to Reinhardt Home Heating in West Oneonta. It was determined that the spill would not be covered because of negligence on the part of the homeowner for not realizing the tank was corroding and therefore could leak.

However, Rob said, the tank was inspected just weeks before the leak and was given a clean bill of health. And Reinhardt President David Harder, who examined the tank after the leak, said he estimated the tank to be about 20 years old and thought it looked to be in pretty good shape.

So, for the past year, Rob said, they have been trying to work out a compromise solution between the DEC and the insurance company, but without success. Thus, the recent letter from the attorney general’s office insisting on payment.

And if that wasn’t enough, fuel oil has seeped up through the newly poured concrete basement, creating an odor that still permeates the house. 

Rob said he’s not sure what to do about that, but he doesn’t think it’s right that the spill wouldn’t be covered by his insurance policy.

The Kamerlings said they believe spills could occur for any of the 2,000 households statewide that heat with fuel oil.

“Not only is our home un-sellable, un-rentable and un-livable,’’ they said, “we are looking at astronomical amounts due in fines and remediation costs. If you heat your home with fuel oil, have your supplier inspect your tank annually and sign off on its condition.

“And if you think you have all your bases covered with your homeowner’s insurance, better think again.’’

Cary Brunswick, of Oneonta, is a freelance writer and editor. He can be reached at brunswick@earthling.net. The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of The Daily Star and its editorial board.