Morgan County Wants To Recoup Expenditures On Heating Oil Spill

The Morgan County Commission will have to pay a little longer to complete cleanup of a Nov. 6 oil spill under a house trailer next to Warm Springs Run in Berkeley Springs. That’s the word from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP.) The good news is that work is nearly complete.

To date, the county has spent close to $40,000.  County officials were made aware of the leak in November when the homeowner called the police to report suspicion of oil being stolen. Law enforcement found the leak and called the fire department.

Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security Director Dick W. Myers said the oil had seeped into the ground.  Approximately 350 to 500 gallons of oil leaked.

County commissioners were called, and the WVDEP and a local EPA official were notified. Berkeley Springs Volunteer Fire Company and Morgan County facilities management staff dug the “interceptor” trench to dam up the leaking oil and placed absorbent pads to collect the oil. 

Commission President Joel Tuttle and Commissioner Bob Ford met in an emergency meeting and decided the county would pay for the cleanup initially in order to stop the oil from continuing to the waterway. Miller Environmental contractors were engaged on a temporary basis.

The commission also allowed a probe test to study how seriously the ground was affected by oil seepage.

This is the second oil leak and spill in two years in Berkeley Springs. In that case, the homeowner’s insurance paid for the cleanup.

West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection Inspector Gerry Crispino told commissioners the responsibility for permanent cleanup is on the property owner.

“The homeowner is usually responsible for paying,” said Myers. “But she doesn’t have the means, and the insurance company said she didn’t have a rider for hazmat situations. The county has done their part to contain the leak. Now, it’s a matter of who pays.”

The oil spill was discussed at the Dec. 6 and Dec. 20 commission meetings. Commissioners decided to stop the contract with Miller Environmental until they found out who will pay for the cleanup. A relative of the homeowner was instructed on how to contain oil in absorbent pads. He changes them and stores them in 55-gal. drums. The process, including disposal of the absorbent pads, will be ongoing for some time.

The property is in the floodplain next to the Run, which is considered a navigable waterway.  Myers said the state DEP deals with spills throughout the state. But when a waterway is involved, the EPA has jurisdiction. If the house trailer must be removed at some point, it could not be placed back on the site because it is in the floodplain. Commissioners said they did not want to displace the homeowner if possible.

Don McLaughlin, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) representative for the region, has been out of the country. He called in by phone to a special meeting Jan. 19 with Myers, county commissioners, Alma Gorse of the Morgan County Planning Commission, members of the Warm Springs Watershed Association, and DEP Inspector Gerry Crispino.

When it happened, Ford said he’d told Tuttle they had to stop the leak, and the contractor would not begin work until payment was guaranteed.

“We had a moral obligation,” said Ford. “We have done the testing on the soil, but I think we might need to dig out soil.”

Crispino said the preferred method is to remove the dirt or leave the interceptor ditch open and pumped out as needed, but that could continue for a year or two.

Ford said the interceptor ditch is a temporary solution. The ditch could not contain the oil if there was a large storm during spring rains, and Warm Springs Run’s water level rose.

“Where do we go from here?” asked Ford. “We’re close to $40,000 out of pocket now. We as a county can’t afford that. The probe was done to see what’s necessary for cleanup. It’s your run. We were told the EPA doesn’t get involved until it has been cleaned up. Where do we go for reimbursement?”

“The county is at a point we cannot continue,” said Tuttle. “We told the contractor to stop and the son is continuing cleanup. The DEP said they are not responsible and cannot reimburse us. When does it stop?”

“You did the right thing,” said McLaughlin by phone.  “As far as cleanup goes, until it is completed, funds are put on hold. The state doesn’t have the means to do it. The homeowner has 90 days to notify you if they can make payment. I sent forms to Dick Myers for the Coast Guard National Pollution Fund. But you cannot complete the report forms until the project is completed.”

The commission doesn’t know how long cleanup of the soil will take. 

McLaughlin said, “There has to be a final bill to the owner for the services. You cannot submit until the action is done with no additional action needed at the site.”

Ford wanted assurance the county would be reimbursed. 

McLaughlin said they can complete forms to the Coast Guard National Pollution Fund for reimbursement once the cleanup is completed if the homeowner is unable to pay the final bill. He saw no reason why the county would not be reimbursed and offered to submit a letter to the Coast Guard that the county took all necessary action. Turnaround time on reimbursement could be two to three months.

Ford said he thinks the county needs to look into the existence of such oil tanks near waterways. He said, “We have an old town, and poor people living in trailers. We need to look at ways to make sure oil tanks are safe. It’s going to happen again.”

The meeting ended with the commission continuing to oversee the operation. Commissioners had planned to advertise for bids on remaining work at the site with the stipulation contractors be on an approved DEP list. But County Facilities Director Vince Cichocki said it was an emergency situation, and he was afraid the bidding process would take too long to get a new contractor before spring rains.

The commission didn’t want to risk the ditch failing to save a few thousand with another contractor, and Tuttle and Reed voted Feb. 1 to go ahead with Miller Environmental on cleanup. Bob Ford was not present at that vote.
Myers reported Feb. 26 that cleanup is nearly complete, with excavation done on removal of contaminated soil and grading.