ORLEANS – The clock is ticking for approximately 600 property owners and businesses to replace their above-ground fuel tanks to be in compliance with a new regulation passed by the board of health.
The board approved and adopted its above-ground fuel and storage tank regulation in June 2021, and the regulation went into effect in September of last year.
Crafted through a collaboration between the town's health and fire departments, the regulation requires that all indoor single-walled tanks installed before July 1992 be replaced with a double-walled fuel tank by Jan. 1. Outdoor single-walled tanks installed prior to July 1, 2008 also must be replaced by the same date.
The regulation also applies to property transfers. In those cases, single-walled tanks must be replaced with double-walled ones, regardless of their age.
Health Agent Alex Fitch said 611 property owners were notified by letter in February of their need to comply with the new regulation. A second letter was sent to remind property owners of the deadline last week, she said, while public hearings have also been held to further educate residents and businesses about the regulation.
"We've done our best to communicate with people," she said. "We've sent out letters, but a lot of people seem not to have heard about it."
But failure to comply with the regulation will be costly. Come Jan. 1, those who still haven't replaced their tank will be ordered to pay a $250 fine for every day they are not in compliance.
While the penalty is aggressive, Fitch said the regulation is "important for public health, safety and the environment."
"Trust me folks, the fines are not cheaper than the outcome," Sims McGrath of the board of health said during the board's Dec. 1 meeting.
Tanks rust from the inside as they age, and that rust makes tanks susceptible to oil leaks. The new regulation is designed to protect against leaked oil that can seep into the ground, thereby potentially polluting the Cape's sole source aquifer.
Fire Chief Geof Deering said the double-walled tank "adds another level of safety for the homeowner and the community."
"Over the years we have had a number of tank failures, both of basement and outside storage tanks," he said. "They leak, they fail and they become an environmental hazard in that way."
Leaked oil would trigger an environmental assessment from the state Department of Environmental Protection, and Deering said remediation can be lengthy and costly.
"It can be tens of thousands of dollars to clean up, and sometimes take years to fully take care of," he said.
Fitch expressed concern to the board of health Dec. 1 about the workload staff in the health department might face in the form of issuing fines if the 611 properties aren't brought into compliance by the start of the year.
"They're handwritten out of a ticket book, and they need to be written every single day," she said.
Order letters will go out on the first business day of the new year to property owners who have yet to install new tanks. Fitch said the health department can track who is in compliance by checking who has taken out permits to install a double-walled tank from the fire department.
Deering said property owners must hire a licensed contractor who will take out permits with the fire department for the installation.
"We come out to inspect that to ensure it meets the state regulations," he said. "It's a quick process, but we need to see it with our own eyes."
Apart from completed installation, Fitch said the town will also accept a contract with a tank installer, including an installation date, as evidence that replacement is underway. Property owners who are having difficulty complying with the regulation can also apply for a variance through the board of health, she said.
In some cases, property owners may already have replaced their tanks or switched over to natural gas, in which case Fitch said they simply need to update their records with the town.
"If they do that between now and Jan. 1, they'll be fully compliant," she said.
Similar regulations are in effect in other Cape towns, and Deering said Orleans was one of the last to put theirs into effect.
"It's overdue," Deering said. "Will it create some stress and challenges? Yeah, we understand that. But we're also looking at safety and the big picture for the environment, which is important."
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