State wants to stop billing homeowners for tech support after spills

A NORTECH crew works on a Gastineau Channel beach on Thursday to clean up heating oil spilled from a vandalized tank at the Prospector Hotel. The state helps homeowners with heating oil spills too, at a cost. A new bill in front of the legislature would allow the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation to provide tech support for residential spills, without charge. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

When a home heating oil tank leaks, costs can add up quickly.

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Depending on the size of the spill, everything from hiring contractors to buying cleanup supplies and even calling the state to report the spill — gets billed.

Alaska’s lawmakers are considering a bill to help with those costs.

In 2010, Fabienne Peter-Contesse’s family found a cork-sized hole in the bottom of their underground heating oil tank in Juneau.

Peter-Contesse told a House Resources committee last month that as soon as they discovered the leak, the family immediately called the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation for help.

A spill expert came out, gave them some advice on what to do and the family started the cleanup.

“So we went out, spent a lot of money on a lot of boom,” Peter-Contesse said. “A lot of absorbent pads… sloshing through our property. Disposing of the free product and pads, etc. in an environmentally responsible way.”

It wasn’t cheap.

“We’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars on this effort. Cleanup, hiring the contractor. We’ve spent several thousand dollars on soil testing. And, none of this is covered by homeowners insurance,” Peter-Contesse said. “So that is all out of pocket.”

Peter-Contesse said that DEC’s staff has been a great resource for technical support and answering questions.

But then, in 2017, the family got their first bill from the state.

“And as you can imagine, the blood pressure shot through the roof,” Peter-Contesse said.

They didn’t want to keep paying that bill — in addition to all of the other other ones — so, the family stopped talking to state spill response staff.

State Spill Prevention and Response Director Kristin Ryan said that’s a common response.

“We have had several situations where a homeowner is talking to us, everything is going well. Then, several weeks later they get our bill — which is an automated process — and all of the sudden, they don’t return our phone calls. They won’t let us on their property. They don’t want to talk to us, because they don’t want another bill,” Ryan said.

Right now, staff at the Department of Environmental Conservation are required by law to recover their costs when they consult on spills. On average, getting technical support from employees in the state’s Division of Spill Prevention and Response can cost between $100-$150 an hour.

But, Ryan said she doesn’t think that when the statutes were written — lawmakers were considering individual homeowners and heating oil leaks.

“They were thinking about Exxon. They were thinking about BP. They were thinking about big companies that are making money off of oil. And they didn’t think the state should have any expenses associated with that industry,” Ryan said.

Right now, there are about 150 homes that have heating oil spills that the state is consulting on.

The bill is pretty narrowly defined to cover just spills from equipment or fuel that is used solely to provide space heat or electric power for residential homes.

It wouldn’t take away any of the cleanup costs — which is typically the bulk of the cost in a situation where heating oil is spilled. But, it would allow the state to provide, essentially free “tech support” when something does go wrong.

Ryan says spill response experts do everything from help homeowners draft bids for contractors to show them where to buy supplies to cleanup the spills themselves.

“Or go out with a meter that helps them see if the vapors are strong enough in the house that perhaps they should move or leave while they’re doing cleanup, things that are — to us — are really important to do,” Ryan said. “We’d like to do it without burdening them with a bill.”

If the bill passes, Ryan’s department estimates that it’ll lose about $60,000 a year in revenue. 

Ryan said she’s confident the state can absorb that cost — especially if it entices homeowners into reporting spills and getting help to clean them up.

Rashah McChesney is a photojournalist turned radio journalist who has been telling stories in Alaska since 2012. Before joining Alaska's Energy Desk , she worked at Kenai's Peninsula Clarion and the Juneau bureau of the Associated Press. She is a graduate of Iowa State University's Greenlee Journalism School and has worked in public television, newspapers and now radio, all in the quest to become the Swiss Army knife of storytellers.

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