Buried oil tank horror cost homeowner over $160,000

Susan Aldred sued the former owners of her West Vancouver home following the discovery of a buried oil tank in the yard. Over 5,000 litres of toxic home-heating oil leaked into her yard from the leaking oil tank. Its location close to the house on a steep hillside with water flowing beneath it created an environmental nightmare.

Like many homeowners, Aldred was unaware of the tank until she wanted to sell her home on Mathers Avenue. She alleged that the previous owners told her when she bought the property that the tank had been removed. Aldred sued them for punitive damages and costs to remove the tank and remediate the area. Aldred indicated that she had no idea there was a tank because of a lack of visible pipping. There was no way she would have known that there was an oil tank on her property.

The contractor who took on the cleanup had been doing this for a long time and this was the worst remediation site he'd ever seen. He was astonished by how much damage had been done. Crews removed 456 tons of contaminated material. Aldred’s situation is not unique and the issue is as bad as the leaky condo crisis.

The air reeked of oil when the tank was opened. A statement of claim filed in B.C. Supreme Court said the tank was filled with sand, oil and water. Aldred’s claim also says that her youngest daughter didn’t eat for nine days while the smell was at its peak and suffered significant weight loss. The mother of two also said her young son experienced nausea and appetite loss, while the stench gave her violent headaches and nausea.

Aldred’s cleanup took two and a half months. Martin Ernst, division fire chief at the West Vancouver Fire Department, said bills are seldom as high as Aldred’s, with most oil tank cleanups costing around $30,000 to $40,000. In 1989, the department started a program to help get rid of old oil tanks installed in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Tanks from this era were commonly buried underground. While the program had seen about 1,000 tanks removed, an estimated 4000 remain as ticking financial and environmental timebombs.

Ernst said, "Susan's case, I hope it's not a harbinger of things to come because people have left their tanks and not dealt with them. I have to give homeowners a bit of a break here because a lot of them don't even know they have a tank. I would say 50 per cent of them don't know they have a tank."

Contamination occurs in about 50 percent of tank removals. Ernst added, "That's very worrying. You can imagine if you are a purchaser and you buy a property and hidden under the ground is potentially 300 to 900 gallons of oil that may have leaked into the soil. With ground water pushing up, at some point that oil reaches the surface. That's a lot of oily product that is believed to be carcinogenic and environmentally damaging."

Jim Sullivan, a lawyer for the previous homeowners, Alexander and Lynda Colbeck, commented: "With regard to homes that have underground oil tanks, these matters do arise and are difficult for everyone who has been involved in ownership of the home. Is the action going to be contested? Right now it is. Do the Colbecks think they are legally responsible for this? No, they don't."