Brian Fryer had to help his mother deal with the removal of a buried oil tank in her yard when she sold her house last year in Chilliwack. The oil tanks are commonly found on properties with houses built in the mid-20th century

Underground tanks can lead to expensive problems

Chilliwack residents continue to unearth forgotten heating oil tanks from their yards, sometimes to great expense.

When Brian Fryer’s 97-year-old mother tried to sell her downtown Chilliwack home, she discovered that there was an old heating oil tank buried under her backyard. The potential buyer wouldn’t take the property until the tank was removed. It cost the Fryers $20,000 and a lot of headache to get it done.

This is a common problem throughout the province. In Chilliwack, there are potentially hundreds of such tanks still buried in private backyards, most of them rusted and half of which may be leaking leftover oil.

Homes built before the city switched to natural gas heating — sometime in the 1950s or ’60s — generally used oil furnaces or wood burning stoves. For these older homes, the city has 370 permits on file that relate to installing underground and above ground oil burning equipment. A city official confirmed that some oil tanks may have been installed for which there are no permits.

When the large steel tanks corrode or the welding tears apart, leftover oil can leak into soil. The longer the tank stays in, the higher the risk of a leak, and the higher the eventual cost of remediation.

Although there is no legal requirement to remove them, insurance companies in Chilliwack will not insure a home that still has an oil tank.

Present owners are solely responsible for removing tanks and remediating soil, with the help of private contractors.

The oil tank that the Fryers' had removed.Of the 10 tanks that Tri-City Tank Tech Ltd. removed from Chilliwack backyards in the last year or so, six had leaked. The company charges $1,500 to $3,000 for a clean removal. But for those where soil has been contaminated, the cost for digging out the affected soil has been anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000.

Another contractor, CERC Oil Tank Removal, has removed about a dozen tanks from Chilliwack in the last few years, about half of which were leaking oil. Average cost for cleanup has been $5,000 to $10,000. In such cases, contractors need to remove several bins of soil, of 8–12 tonnes each.

“Until you start digging, you don’t know how far this can go,” said CERC owner Fabio Chiesa.

Much higher costs have hit the news in other municipalities. A North Vancouver owner had to pay $90,000 to remove a tank and remediate the surrounding soil last August. In 2011, a West Vancouver owner got stuck with a $224,000 bill for soil remediation, which she fought in court and managed to get lowered in a settlement.

As an industry standard, insurance companies do not cover removal or cleanup of heating oil tanks, according to broker HUB International Barton, which works with 12 insurance providers in Chilliwack. Such tanks trigger an exclusion in comprehensive coverage because oil is considered a pollutant.

For prospective home buyers and current owners, there are a few signs that indicate a buried tank. The most common is a fill pipe about two inches in diameter, sticking up from the ground in the yard. It could be about a foot high, or may have been sawed off to just a few inches.

Another is a vent pipe on the side of a house, about 8-10 feet long. If there’s a pipe that owners can’t explain, it may lead to an oil tank, advised Chiesa.

A third are two copper feed lines coming out of the floor in the furnace room. The lines would have been capped or cut off, and would connect to a tank.

Contractors that offer tank detection services will often bring in a large metal detector to scan the yard.

The city of Chilliwack has not recorded oil tank removals, and does not require permits for removals or related soil remediation.

Other municipalities are moving towards more regulation of the tank removal industry. West Vancouver, Surrey, Burnaby, and Delta now require a permit for removals, and soil tests are mandatory, according to Chiesa.

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