Avoid Costly Oil Tank Troubles when Buying a House

Posted by on Monday, April 6th, 2015
in Litigation, Real Estate & Property Law

There is a looming epidemic here in BC that may be more devastating to homeowners that the Leaky Condo Crisis.  It is hidden away and silently gnawing away at the equity many homeowners mistakenly feel they are building up in their homes.  Underground storage tanks (USTs), that used to be for heating oil, are causing an ever greater risk to home owners who are generally caught unaware of the huge liability associated with the removal and remediation a site with heating oil contamination.

Historically USTs were used throughout the area as the preferred method of meeting the heating needs of homeowners and the desire for a cleaner and less industrial look to residential neighbourhoods.  Over time, the clear problem of an owners inability to monitor the condition of USTs and the problem of oil leaking out of aging USTs lead to the eventual banning of USTs.  Many USTs at the time were decommissioned by having them cut open, pumped out and filled with sand while others were simply disconnected and left to be forgotten.  No matter how the USTs were decommissioned, they were generally ignored and eventually forgotten.  Houses were bought and sold while USTs, unknown to the current owner, sat in place as part of a huge problem.

USTs in and of themselves are not the issue, the cost to have a search done and have a tank removed is typically not exorbitant and ensures homeowners their property is not housing a UST should they choose to sell their house down the road or brings them into compliance with municipal by-laws which are increasingly requiring any USTs not in use to be removed.  The larger problem is the issue of soil contamination.  Soil contamination is a serious issue and the common way to treat soil contamination is to remove all the contaminated soil and replace it with clean soil.  Unfortunately the way most homeowners discover they have a soil contamination issue on their lot is once the UST has been removed and inspectors determine the surrounding soil is contaminated.  The only real solution at this point is to continue digging out contaminated soil until the extent of the contamination is discovered.  As this homeowner client of ours found out, that can be a huge sum many time more than the cost of removing a single UST.

The remedies to an affected homeowner are generally limited.  The legislation which dictates liability clearly spreads the onus among all previous owners of the property in most circumstances but, the legislation does not provide a direct mechanism to collect the costs of remediation from those previous homeowners.   Current owners can choose to dig deep, refinance and/or sue the previous homeowners.  If you are looking at buying or selling a home anywhere USTs are or were in use, be sure you speak with us about what you can do to prevent a similar problem adding tens or hundreds of thousands to the cost of your home.