After almost two decades, a program to remove thousands of toxic oil tanks from North Shore properties has had little success, leaving homeowners — and the environment — at serious risk. Residential underground storage tanks, large metal containers that were once used to hold heating oil, are buried next to thousands of houses in North and West Vancouver. The tanks, many of which were designed to last only 25 years, are inclined to leak toxic oil products into the surrounding soil. Municipalities have been encouraging their removal since 1989, when the province included their disposal in the fire code. But after 20 years, only a fraction of the containers have been taken out. That means the ground around many North Vancouver properties is growing more toxic every year, and the costs are now being felt by the environment and by homeowners. The oil, a carcinogen, sits on top of water, eventually coming to the surface. It can contaminate households by being tracked in on shoes; and it can migrate into neighboring properties and into watercourses.

A corroded tank, usually buried eight feet deep, can also become a dangerous sinkhole. Most tanks were installed between the 1920s and 1960s. When people switched to natural gas, most doing so by the 1970s, many simply abandoned the old tanks. In the absence of proper installation records some property owners do not even know they are there.

Now homeowners are starting to feel the sting of the public’s inaction. Increasingly, removal of the tanks is being required at the time homes are sold and when insurance is renewed. Taking a non-leaking tank out costs around $3,000, including the environmental assessment. But for a leaking tank, the cost can be much higher. Cleanup jobs range from $15,000 to $30,000. In bad cases the price can be higher still.

Here are a few tips which may help you locate an underground storage tank on your property. When buying or selling real estate, it is imporatant to find out if a tank exists and to investigate the best options for remediation or removal.

  • Visible oil tank fill or vent pipes Protruding from the ground or flush with the ground and anywhere on a property. Oil fill pipes may be directly over a tank, near a tank, close to a building wall, or located at a considerable distance from the building and from the tank as well.
  • Curbside oil fill pipes Look for remote & curbside oil filler pipes: In some neighborhoods oil fill valves are located in a curb box at the street for oil tanks which were buried more than 75 feet away. The vent pipe for an oil tank filled in this manner will probably be nowhere near the curb and may be not even too close to the oil tank.
  • Depressions near a building suggesting recent excavation, particularly if the depression is outside a wall where it would have been logical to install a buried tank, such as at a building foundation near the location of indoor current or previously installed oil-fired heating equipment.
  • Areas of dead grass or plantings in a small spot where a buried or previous fuel tank fill pipe may have been installed – from spillage of fuel. At one site this clue led to the discovery that the tank “removal” had consisted of nothing more than the unscrewing and removal of the fill and vent pipes from the leaky oil tank.
  • Age and type of property often older buildings will have had a buried tank installed even if more recently the fuel has been converted from oil to gas. Even if an old indoor oil tank is in view at an old property, don’t assume that a still-older tank is not also buried nearby.
  • Unexplained oil tank vent pipes may be found at building foundation walls nowhere near currently-installed heating equipment or oil tanks. It may lead to a buried oil tank or to an oil tank which has been abandoned in a building crawl space.
  • Amateur oil piping installations may be found still in place. Is a buried oil tank still present or not? This undersized oil filler line indicates either that the installation is quite old or that the plumbing was not done by a professional. Similarly, you may trace oil piping to