SOUTHWEST HARBOR — Darian Higgins, a responder with Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection, arrived at a residence on Clark Point Road the afternoon of Feb. 26 to inspect what looked like slight oil staining in the driveway.
The fire department had contacted the DEP earlier that day to report the smudge, thinking it might have leaked from an oil truck.
The house’s proximity to the ocean, the size of the stain and the fact that it was a seasonal residence all were red flags to Higgins.
“That made us think we should take a look at it fairly quickly.”
But in order to determine the source of the stain, Higgins had to get closer to it. The next day, he was finally able to track down the homeowners, who live in Florida. He got their permission to enter and investigate the property.
After some investigation, Higgins learned that the heating oil tank, which was supposed to be full according to the homeowner, was now empty.
The tank had been dripping slowly, eventually resulting in a 250-gallon spill, said Higgins.
“It looked like it had been leaking for several weeks.”
The cause of the drip: corrosion of the metal tank had created a hole.
Higgins made arrangements with a local contractor to excavate the oil. In total, they removed 40 yards of soil. They also installed two recovery wells to pump out the oil that is still locked underneath the house.
The spill impacted air quality inside the house and contaminated groundwater, but there was no effect on the drinking water supply, since it’s administered by the town through a separate system.
Nearby drains were tested to make sure oil wasn’t getting into the harbor. Higgins said by the time he got to the site, there was no evidence of pollution in the ocean.
In the cleanup process, responders encountered additional contamination from a previous spill, likely from the days of an auto repair shop that was once located on the property. That patch of soil was excavated as well.
The excavation work was completed last Wednesday, but the recovery wells are still in place, and the response team at the DEP will continue monitoring the site until it’s stable. Higgins said the cleanup may take weeks to complete.
The DEP regional office responds to roughly a thousand spills a year, according to Higgins, about a quarter of which are significant working spills, like the Southwest Harbor case.
To prevent similar oil spills, Higgins recommended that people check their oil tanks periodically and replace them every 20-25 years.
“Being proactive can prevent a lot of damage. Cleanups are expensive.”
Since the spill happened at a private residence, the homeowners bear the costs of the cleanup. Higgins said most homeowners’ insurance policies don’t cover oil spill cleanups, but the state has set up an insurance fund to help make the costs more affordable.
Homeowners may apply to the Maine Ground and Surface Water Clean-up and Response Fund, said David Madore, the communications director at the DEP, and anyone who owns an above-ground oil storage tank is eligible to apply. Money for this fund comes from oil import fees, he added.
Higgins also urged people to contact the DEP in case of a spill and said that his team is available year-round.
“We’re really there to help and have the homeowner’s best interest in mind,” he said. “I’ve spent Christmas in people’s basements before, and I’ll happily do it again.”