Emergency Oil Spill Response from a Routine Heating Oil Delivery

November 27, 2018


Oil Distribution: Tips and Lessons Learned from Mattapan, MA

As winter has abruptly settled into New England, homeowners are now filling up their heating oil tanks, possibly for the first time this season. This might seem like another routine annual service, but all parties involved-homeowners, oil distributors, and insurers should remember that after a few months of dormancy, fill and vent lines can become clogged and corrosion can weaken both tanks and fuel lines. With each passing year, the tank system components become more vulnerable to leaks, ruptures, and other structural failures that can lead to costly cleanup efforts. Here are some lessons learned from previous seasons that can help you mitigate your risk and costs. One incident that we responded to was reported by the Boston Globe, where two families were displaced from their Mattapan, MA, residence following an oil spill which occurred during a routine filling service. On January 6, 2018, the oil delivery company filling a 275-gallon tank felt a thump on the fill pipe and stopped the delivery. Upon entering the basement of the residence, the tank was found to have ruptured and leaked nearly 170 gallons of oil to the floor of the basement. Due to the fumes from the oil and frozen pipes that resulted from the loss of heat, the residents-seven adults and one child-were moved from their home until the release was contained, the basement vented, and frozen pipes repaired.

We assisted the insurance company with various issues:

  1. Inspecting and identifying areas of the home and property that were damaged by the oil spill; 

  2. Researching the cause of the rupture and spill; and

  3. Determining what repairs and remediation must be completed to ensure the property and home were properly cleaned.  

What was Damaged by the Oil Spill, and What Cleanup was Required

Following the rupture and spill, our forensic engineer became involved to determine what caused the rupture to take place, and what damage was incurred because of it. The following details include the findings of all involved parties, along with the challenges faced in cleaning up both the home and property:

  • The sudden force of the tank rupture caused the fuel oil to spread out over a large area;

  • The concrete slab of the basement, in addition to cracks, had two dozen rectangular holes that allowed the roughly 170 gallons of oil spilled to rapidly drain into to soil and groundwater beneath the building;

  • Due to the interior location of the release, space restrictions, and volume of impacted soil, a vactor truck was required to vacuum up loosened soil;

  • A shallow water table facilitated the spread of fuel oil beneath the basement slab;

  • Due to the shallow water table, dewatering was required, which increased project costs and slowed excavation;

  • Temporary supports had to be installed to allow three lally columns in the impacted area to be removed;  and

  • Impacted soil had to be excavated and backfilled in sections with flowable fill to avoid risk to the structural integrity of the building.

Determining Fault for the Fuel Spill

Regardless of what party we are representing, GeoInsight always conducts a fair and thorough investigation to determine the cause and origin of an incident. The key outcomes taken from the cumulative reports include:

  • The rupture of the tank resulted from over pressurization caused by an obstructed vent pipe; furthermore, 

  • The vent whistle designed to alert that oil delivery person that the tank is filling normally and when the tank is full was likely non-functional.

Investigative and Research Outcomes

By providing insurance claim support through our investigation, we were able to assist with a fair negotiation for all parties. Following the investigation of the site, GeoInsight both created and implemented a strategy for cleaning up the site and provided assistance to determine insurance coverage on behalf of both the oil distributor and the homeowner. Currently, the removal of impacted soil is complete, the lally columns and basement floor have been replaced, and post-excavation soil analytical data is below residential standards on average.

Takeaways and Lessons Learned

As winter approaches and people are beginning to fill their home heating  oil tanks again it is imperative for contractors and distributors to remember that safety protocols must be followed during any home repairs, installations, or servicing. For oil distributors, this Mattapan incident has proven that best-practice protocols can help mitigate remediation effort. Here are a few tips:

  • Cease oil delivery if the tanks vent whistle is not functioning properly

  • Ensure all personnel are properly trained 

  • Refuse delivery to tanks that present an elevated risk of releasee.g. Corroded, beyond rated lifespan, unknown age, etc. 

  • Inspect the fill and vent pipes for possible obstructions or other problems (missing fill or vent caps, insect nests, ice buildup, etc.)

In the interest of insurers, offering insight to both homeowners and oil companies is the best way to ensure all parties follow best-practices. This can include:

  • Encouraging oil companies to demonstrate regular training of personnel


Need help / Have Questions – contact us:


Massachusetts: Andrew Donoghue, LEP

978.679.1600 | ATDonoghue@geoinc.com

Contact Andy Donoghue


New Hampshire and Vermont: Peter Frank, PG

603.314.0820 | PDFrank@geoinc.com

Contact Peter Frank


Connecticut: Lloyd Jones

860.894.1022 | LWJones@geoinc.com

Contact Lloyd Jones