New House - decommission old oil tank or let it be?
March 31, 2015 10:08 AM   Subscribe

We're in contract on a 1940 house in Seattle, Washington, USA, and the inspector said there used to be oil heat. There's no visible sign of a tank, and no records of a tank being decommissioned (city records for decommissioning or removal of old tanks only go back to 1997). We're trying to decide if it's worth looking for the tank and having it decommissioned if one is found, or if it's OK to just leave it be.

Our Realtor has been encouraging us to look for and decommission the (theoretical) tank with the argument that if one is there and a leak happens, this could lead to expensive environmental mitigation work which we would be on the hook for. We're trying to get a reality check of how much we should actually be worrying about this situation.

If the tank is still there, it's probably under a raised flagstone patio (picture here) that would either be destroyed or severely damaged looking for a fill pipe. And if we dig for it, it might already be decommissioned. (It'd be under windows to the left of the door, if it's anywhere.) Fixing the patio would cost thousands of dollars.

So, should we look for the tank (which could already be decommissioned) and possibly incur large expenses for rebuilding or replacing the patio, or should we take the financial risk to avoid future ground contamination? Wells are prohibited in the city so nobody's water could be contaminated, but we are in a salmon watershed, way up a hill and a mile inland.
posted by matildaben to Home & Garden (32 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Check out this description of disclosure and penalty for in-ground fuel oil tanks, and weigh it against the interests of the seller and the seller's real estate agent. That first paragraph is perhaps the most important.
posted by the Real Dan at 10:24 AM on March 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: you seriously don't want to buy somebody else's environmental problem. Look in the basement near where the furnace was located. Try to find the location where the fill pipe came through the wall. That should give you an idea where the tank was located. The tank may have been located in the basement itself, in which case, you're golden, it's already been removed and you should only find a patched fill-hole in the wall. If the hole is lower down on the wall, it's more likely it was an in-ground tank. If it's still there and buried, you want to be sure it's been safely dealt with in the way the local authorities want it done. This stuff can quickly run into serious money if you're found in violation.
posted by cosmicbandito at 10:25 AM on March 31, 2015 [8 favorites]

The worst thing! Really depends how close it is to the foundation, fault lines, and how much oil may still be inside. Will need to make decision on whether it will create a future impediment to additions. I would find out if the owner will credit you the cost of its removal if it impedes future opportunity. I would definitely bring this up since I get the impression this is the first you're hearing about it. If it a rush sale the owners probably do know the location and cannot afford removal now. Some jurisdictions now require removal. Check your local laws.
posted by parmanparman at 10:26 AM on March 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Hard to tell from the photo and I know you said there is no visible sign of a tank but is there any physical evidence in the foundation or floor or wall that may indicated where the pipe might have come into the house? Do you see any spot where the foundation wall was repaired or patched up?

Did the inspector say how old the current HVAC system is? eg if it's been 15 years maybe one of the local oil delivery companies might have a record of oil deliveries to the house and you may be able to continue the investigation from there?
posted by eatcake at 10:26 AM on March 31, 2015

Best answer: Ask the neighbors. My house has a guy who has lived next door for over 30 years and can tell me more about my house than the City ever could. One of them might have been friends with earlier owners, and know the history of the location.
posted by instead of three wishes at 10:30 AM on March 31, 2015 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Ideally, you should be making the seller of the house responsible for this. That's what we had to do when we sold our Seattle house 3 years ago. We used Tanks by Dallas to find and decommission the tank. The total was $1100 which as the seller we paid out of the money coming to us out of escrow.
posted by ShooBoo at 10:32 AM on March 31, 2015 [9 favorites]

Best answer: You should definitely look for it. These things are $$$ to clean up if they leak. Also, if there is a release it's possible there could be vapor intrusion into your living space, which is a health risk. (Less likely with fuel oil, but apparently it still happens.)

Also, you don't need to dig up the patio to look! You should be able to find a geophysical survey company in your area to come look with an electromagnetic detector (basically a big metal detector on wheels) and a ground-penetrating radar unit. They should be able to tell you if the tank is still there, or if they find a tank grave (where the tank was removed in the past).

For an area that size I'd expect it to be a half-day rate, so ~$400-700 or maybe even less. Trust me, that is cheap compared to potential cleanup costs. Google "GPR [yourcity]".
posted by pie ninja at 10:37 AM on March 31, 2015 [6 favorites]

FWIW, here in Michigan, my folk's oil tank was located in the basement.
posted by bricksNmortar at 10:50 AM on March 31, 2015

Home sales are major financial transactions. Problems like this don't get kicked down the road unless there's something horrific. It's not a lady or a tiger, it's a tiger.

Any house mystery with a potentially calamitous downside will inevitably turn out calamitous, because there's been too much money at stake for easy recourses not to have been exhausted.
posted by Quisp Lover at 10:52 AM on March 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I live in the Seattle area and several of my friends have had to deal with the same issue. Your homeowners insurance company is probably going to require that you decommission it, so it's not really up to you whether or not to leave it be. (If you ignore an insurance company's requirement, that can nullify your whole policy so don't think you can get away with it by pretending it's not a problem.) Also, they don't have to dig to find out where the tank is/was. There are a number of companies in the area who deal with this - it should be a fairly straightforward process.
posted by stowaway at 10:53 AM on March 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

Having to dig up the patio sounds bogus to me. That's like the worst, most scorched-earth, intentional pain-in-the-ass way of doing it; I think someone is trying to encourage you to not do this by telling you that's the only way to do it.

There are lots of ways of locating buried pipes / tanks / etc without just randomly digging for them. I'd want to know if there's a tank buried out in the yard, but I wouldn't dig up an entire nice patio to find out. I'd have someone come with either a radar unit or some other (electromagnetic induction?) system and try to chase the pipe, starting from where it came into the house.

And by "I'd have somebody", I mean "make the seller pay for"; this doesn't seem like it ought to be your problem as the buyer. But if you are in some sort of absurdly tight real estate market where you have to do all sorts of ridiculous self-flagellation in order to encourage the buyer to do you the favor of taking your money for their property, as is apparently the case in some places right now, do what you need to do I guess.

I'd have somebody take a stab at looking for a buried tank non-invasively, and then if that comes up with nothing, I'd probably be comfortable saying with a straight face to anyone who might ask in the future that I thought the tank had been removed and was working on that assumption. (And I'd get the buyer to state that in writing as well.) I don't know what the typical configuration was for buried oil tanks in your area, but when I've seen them in the Northeast they tend to not be that deeply buried (the top of the tank anyway). So it's entirely possible that it was removed and the patio was put in to cover up the hole and disturbance that yanking it out it caused.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:57 AM on March 31, 2015

Response by poster: If a GPR or tank removal company does the survey and finds the tank, will they be able to tell from the radar results whether the tank is decommissioned already?
posted by matildaben at 10:57 AM on March 31, 2015

Response by poster: P.S. We are indeed "in some sort of absurdly tight real estate market where you have to do all sorts of ridiculous self-flagellation in order to encourage the buyer to do you the favor of taking your money for their property" - it's amazing the kind of hoops buyers have to jump through regarding pre-inspections, waiving inspection contingencies, and taking on remediation costs that usually the seller would take on, in a situation where there are usually 10+ offers on every house and homes are only on the market for about 5 days.
posted by matildaben at 10:59 AM on March 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

When I bought my current home there was an issue with two above-ground oil tanks on the property -- they were both sludged up and and rusting out and the tenant in one of the apartments (who had, just a week previously, told me she loved living in the neighborhood) was moving out because she could no longer get heat and that's not acceptable in a cold climate when you have an 18-month-old child.

So, having been alerted to the fact that there were issues I made it a contingency of my offer on the house that the sellers replace them before any sale take place. The owners agreed to that condition but tried to cheap out on getting it removed properly and thus began, for them, a saga that eventually included a spill caused by incompetent removal, involvement of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, a five month delay in the sale of the house while mandatory clean-up occurred, and the eventual requirement that 2 1/2 tons of contaminated soil be removed from the spill site, placed on a barge, and shipped to the lower 48, where it had to be accepted at an approved disposal facility before the DEC would close the issue.

On my side it led to a tragicomic and incredibly awkward entanglement (involving very unwelcome sexual advances and harassment that escalated to actual stalking) with a temporary landlady (when the sale was delayed five months I had to find another place to live in the meantime) who had serious dementia and impulse control issues. The whole thing was a fiasco and a nightmare for everyone involved.

My experience was admittedly very far from typical but by failing to deal with this now you are potentially putting yourself in the place of the owners from whom I purchased the house: they failed to deal with their problem in a responsible manner and in the end wound up on the hook for delay and expenses far beyond what it would have taken to deal with the issue properly before it became a crisis.

Don't mess around; get it taken care of and budget the money to hire competent people who will do it right.
posted by Nerd of the North at 11:04 AM on March 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If a GPR or tank removal company does the survey and finds the tank, will they be able to tell from the radar results whether the tank is decommissioned already?

Usually, but it depends on how the tank was decommissioned. If the tank was removed and the hole was backfilled, or if they filled the tank with concrete, that usually should be pretty clear from the GPR.

If they just filled it with water (which was common back in the day), it'll probably look exactly like a non-decommissioned tank. That being said, a tank filled with water and left in place effectively *wasn't* properly decommissioned, and given that you have no records, you should probably pull it anyway. (It's pretty hard to tell the difference between a tank that was "decommissioned" by being filled with water, and a tank that was abandoned while empty and started leaking and letting in groundwater.)

They also hopefully can tell if there was no tank (in which case, odds are the house's oil storage was in the basement). If that's the case, or if they find a concrete-filled tank or a backfilled tank hole, I'd suggest asking the GPR guys to prepare a short report documenting what they found, so you have that documentation to back you up when you go to sell the house. (If they DO find a current tank, you won't need the GPR report because you'll be getting a tank closure report.)
posted by pie ninja at 11:08 AM on March 31, 2015 [3 favorites]

The sellers should know if the tank is still there, and if it's not, they should be able to provide you with the paperwork showing that it was properly removed or decommissioned. Check your seller's disclosure sheet; this information should be there.

If there is removal and/or remediation that needs to be done, you better believe it's the responsibility of the seller. Good luck to them trying to sell that house once it's known that there is expensive remediation that needs to be done.
posted by amro at 11:22 AM on March 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: The sellers do not know anything about the tank.

Usually around here they decommission a tank by filling it with foam, not concrete or water.
posted by matildaben at 12:14 PM on March 31, 2015

Best answer: Washington state doesn't seem to regulate home tanks the same way as commercial USTs, which is really good news for you. There's a fact sheet on RHOT here from the state depart of ecology. It's pretty general, but provides some contacts if you will have to deal with a tank.

There's also a special insurer for tanks in Washington, the Pollution Liability Insurance Agency (PLIA). I'm not sure of their exact mandate (not dealt with WA state folks before), but they seem to provide some statutory aid, i.e. money for clean-up (and decommissioning), for old residential tanks. They may also be worth following up with.
posted by bonehead at 12:25 PM on March 31, 2015

I can't open the picture at work, but are you sure it would be under the patio? I live in a 1940s house in Seattle and mine was under the driveway. The only evidence is a small, metal circular cap closing it off. Hardly even noticeable.
posted by canda at 12:33 PM on March 31, 2015

Patio seems like the wrong place, it's below the walk out basement level. I thought the tended to be at level with a furnace for easier pumping? Another possibility is look for old aerial surveying photos that might show dirt access to one side of the house. historic aerials
posted by nickggully at 1:32 PM on March 31, 2015

I personally would not buy a house with an unremediated UST. I saw a few too many of these in my practice when my practice as an attorney focused on real estate/development. But it's a cost benefit analysis, and the above is not intended to be legal advice, just my personal opinion.
posted by slateyness at 2:10 PM on March 31, 2015

I have one in my backyard in Utah. I don't know about this decommissioning stuff and what it entails. When I found mine, I dug down to see how far down it was and how big it was. It was pretty far down and was pretty large. Probably like 500 gallons or so. I used a grinder to cut the filler neck off, I got an oil company to come over and suck out the remaining oil. They got so much that if there were a couple more gallons they would have cut me a check, but, the way it was they didn't charge me for the job and I was happy. Then I spoke to my city's EPA office. They told me to dump some kitty down there to soak up any remaining oil. So I went to Costco and got a few big bags and dumped them down there. Hopefully that was good enough and I don't have any problems, because now the thing is under a concrete patio.
posted by trbrts at 2:48 PM on March 31, 2015

If the tank is buried, there had to have been some way to get oil into the thing. Look for a filler neck coming out of the ground with a locking cap on it. I actually found mine when we threw an old toilet out of an upstairs balcony and it shattered on the top of the neck that was under a clump of grass. Really a metal detector should do the trick.
posted by trbrts at 2:52 PM on March 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

There's no inspection contingency in your contract for more specialized inspections? I swear that mine said I could extend the deadline to have a specialist come look at something.

I'd think YOU want to find the tank and officially notify the seller, because then they know they have to disclose it to future buyers. I would expect that to be at your expense though, just like the house inspector was. If you ask them to arrange and pay for it, they can just say no, back out of the deal, and try again with another buyer.

I would NOT consider inheriting an environmental mess with crossed fingers.
posted by ctmf at 5:38 PM on March 31, 2015

To clarify, the searching would be at your expense. If you find a tank, the expense of dealing with it would be negotiable (seller does it? credit on sale price? accept as-is?)
posted by ctmf at 5:42 PM on March 31, 2015

Honestly as someone in seattle, i think the "yea i don't really know" answer is sketchy as hell. They know the market here is completely feverish bullshit right now, and assume that people will just power through without looking too closely and don't want to deal with anyone whose going to be even a tiny bit of a(legitimate!) stickler about it.

Move out and let it be some other suckers problem. You could call a tank company and have them come check it out, but i'd honestly take this as a sign that there might be other serious or annoying problems that they just don't know about and may have intentionally avoided looking in to so they could claim ignorance.

This is the kind of situations a market that pushes for inspection waivers and such creates.

A legit person would be fine with you inspecting it knowing it's not like this house isn't going to sell soon if you pass. They just don't want to know, or do know and don't want to say.

And that's some shady $500 car on craigslist bullshit, which while sadly common is not at all fitting to a transaction as big as a house.
posted by emptythought at 7:46 PM on March 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

Don't buy Somebody Else's Problem: they are desperately hoping that you will buy this responsibility off of them for $0. Can you get them to escrow a reasonable sum for this?

Our oil tank was in the corner of the basement, closest to the street: there was a tap outside, where the oil guy hooks up the hose from his truck. (It's still there, but we moved to a house with gas heat.)

Some houses have them buried outside the foundation. Do some sleuthing in the basement, trying to trace where the old lines run (or where they were, if they're gone now). Finding the thing takes a metal detector and/or long rods pounded into the dirt.

If it leaks, your lawn will be mangled where they dig, and it'll cost you out of pocket.

We bought a house with radon, and got a guy to come in to install a system before we would close. *shrug* I had to pay to do the same thing to the house I was selling, so I wasn't particularly upset.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:47 AM on April 1, 2015

If you ignore this now and want to sell the house later, it will become your responsibility to remove or properly decommission the tank and remediate any soil contamination. You can't ethically keep your knowledge of its existence to yourself if/when you sell. And by the way if soil contamination makes its way to your neighbors' property, that will be your responsibility to remediate as well. You are taking a very big risk if you don't deal with this now.
posted by amro at 7:50 AM on April 3, 2015

Response by poster: The seller had no knowledge of whether there was a tank or not, and the person who sold him the house 9 years ago did not either (seller checked his purchase documents). This is pretty typical for our area, and we are in such a tight housing market that no buyer would walk away on account of this.

We closed on the house Wednesday. The tank guy (Tanks By Dallas that ShooBoo recommended above) came out today and found an oil tank on the South side of the house (left in the photo) by the exterior stairs down from street level. It is NOT under the patio. He will be able to tell if it is already decommissioned or not. If it needs to be decommissioned, there are two options - drain and fill, or dig up and remediate. The first option is obviously simpler and less expensive. If we need to get the work done, they will refund half of the search cost (about $250 total). We are waiting for the follow-up estimate now. We will definitely get the work done if it has not been done already, but figuring out when to do it will depend on the estimate.

We will keep a copy of his report of findings and a record of any work that he does to follow up in our records for when we sell the house in the future.
posted by matildaben at 11:18 AM on April 17, 2015

Response by poster: The tank only contains water, no oil. It will cost about $950 to fill it with inert material or $1200 to remove it.
posted by matildaben at 12:02 PM on April 17, 2015

Response by poster: They tested the soil and there was no contamination. We filled the tank in place with inert material since there was no need to dig it out.
posted by matildaben at 12:27 PM on April 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

Whew! So glad for you that there was no soil contamination!!! Best case scenario.
posted by amro at 4:46 PM on April 30, 2015

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