The plague of buried tanks hits fire, sewer district

There’s oil in them there hills, but what used to be a sign of prosperity is becoming a big pain in the neck for South Kitsap taxing districts.

Old underground gas and oil storage tanks — relics of a time when few had electric heat and environmental controls were scarce — are buried all over Kitsap County. South Kitsap — the focus of a major county-headed cleanup effort funded through the Environmental Protection Agency — seems to have more than its share.

The city of Port Orchard, for example, had to go back twice to clean up the old Red Barn property on Mitchell Avenue because decades of waste petroleum had soaked much of the ground and rendered it unbuildable.

The city and Karcher Creek Sewer District teams working on the sewage treatment plant expansion won’t even say the phrase “buried tanks” at meetings. If one is found under the expansion footprint, it could delay the project for months and potentially cost the two agencies tens of thousands of dollars.

Earlier this month, CenCom crews prepping a piece of Fire District 7-owned property at 1826 Fircrest Drive found a 200-gallon heating oil storage tank near the edge of the parcel. The crews were there to start preliminary work on a new CenCom radio tower proposed for the other end of the lot.

The tower is part of an effort on the part of Cencom to improve emergency communications reception in less-accessible parts of the county. The fire district has allowed CenCom use of the land in return for certain improvements to the rest of the property, which will be used for firefighter training. Work on the tower was scheduled to start in spring. The paving work that would have affected the tank site won’t be done until after the tower in completed, said Fire Chief Mike Brown.

Paving still counts as construction, however, and therefore the fire district is required under state law to remove the tank and clean up any contaminated soil.

Environmental regulations require property owners who find pollution to remove much more than the actual amount of affected soil in order to ensure no toxins remain.

If the tank has leaked, the fire district could be required to remove and replace hundreds of cubic yards of soil — an expensive proposition.

“Our fingers are still crossed that it all remains inside and there’s been no leakage,” Brown said.

Luckily for the fire district, state law also lays the burden of paying for the cleanup at the feet of those who caused the mess. Because the property was formerly owned by Karcher Creek Sewer District, and because the district signed a sales agreement certifying the property was clean, the sewer district will be getting the bill.

Sewer Commissioner Jim Hart, however, appeared unruffled by the news. He said the district already removed three similar tanks from that site prior to selling it to the fire district and found very little leakage overall. Hart also said the evidence, which points to a half-full tank rather than an empty one, is encouraging. If the tank had been leaking, he said, by this point it probably would have been empty.

Hart estimates the tank removal, which includes only minimal cleanup, will probably cost the district only $25,000 or so — the bare minimum for a project of this type.

“So it’s good news,” he said. “ It sounds like a pretty easy fix.”

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