Mistake inundates home with heating oil

Fuel spills and leaks happen often, state says

January 30, 2003|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

Teri Jack smelled the fumes even before she read the note on her Davidsonville home's door informing her that a heating company had accidentally filled her basement with nearly 400 gallons of oil meant for a neighbor's house.

She walked halfway down the stairs. The neatly tiled and carpeted basement was covered with thick oil and smelled so awful she didn't dare go farther.

"I was shocked," the Anne Arundel County homeowner said yesterday. "I cried for a little bit. Then I calmed down and pulled myself together."

It is a homeowner's nightmare: a delivery person goes to an address, pumps oil into the home's outdoor pipes, and several hundred gallons later, when the tank won't fill, the delivery person realizes it is the wrong house. And according to the Maryland Department of the Environment, it happens frequently in the winter.

"Obviously, there is a big problem here," said MDE spokesman Richard McIntire. "But we have inspectors on spill calls all day, every day."

While most Maryland residents heat their homes with natural gas or electricity, McIntire estimates that 385,000 residents use oil heat. Most of the complaints MDE investigates involve customers who report too much oil was pumped in, or whose pipes have rusted and are leaking. But several times a year, McIntire said, the MDE investigates a complaint such as Jack's, where the resident has gas heat and the oil delivery person became confused.

Jack's home, which she bought in 1997, has been using gas heat since 1990. But she has the oil pipes on the side of her house that lead into her basement. Jack, a paper company supervisor in Landover, said she never thought about the pipes until the mishap Monday: The house passed inspection with no problems.

State law requires homeowners to remove the heating oil tank and all piping and piping connections when converting oil heat to gas or electric. McIntire says Jack can't be blamed for the problem. He says the homeowner who converted the heat should have removed the pipes.

The pipes are being removed now, along with the rest of Jack's basement. The company that made the mistake sent a cleanup crew immediately to Jack's Nile Road home. In addition to removing all her possessions from the basement, crews have taken out the wall paneling, the tile and the carpet. Jack, 38, and her 9-year-old son, Bradley Nelson, are splitting their time between relatives' and friends' houses and local hotels.

The MDE advised Jack to stay out of the house during the cleanup because of the risk of an explosion. The heating company is paying for the hotel, Jack said.

Cleanup crews, Jack and the MDE identified the heating company as Griffith Energy Services of Cheverly, but company officials did not return calls yesterday.

Jack said she does not know when she can return home, or how much it will cost to fix it. McIntire said most homeowners can move back in eventually, but cleaning up the damage can cost tens of thousands of dollars, and homeowner's insurance doesn't cover it.

She has hired a lawyer, to ensure the company continues to take responsibility.

"There's not a whole lot I can do at this point but let them try to help me fix it," Jack said.

Sun staff writer Lynn Anderson contributed to this article.

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