Financial nightmare: Family coping with heating oil spill told insurance money has dried up

A family in Worcester County has coped with the devastation of a heating oil spill at their home for the past 20 months. An insurance company was picking up the tab for the expensive cleanup, but suddenly said the money for the claim had all been spent. The homeowners are now facing hundreds of thousands of out-of-pocket repair costs.

NBC Universal, Inc.

Evan Swayze walks around his property in Rutland, Massachusetts, and recalls the way his home used to look.

Lush landscaping has been transformed into a front yard filled with dirt and weeds. A paver walkway and granite front steps have been replaced by a boarded-up front door. And a finished basement, which included a dance studio Swayze built for his daughter, has been torn down to the studs and cement.



Watch NBC10 Boston news for free, 24/7, wherever you are.


Get Boston local news, weather forecasts, lifestyle and entertainment stories to your inbox. Sign up for NBC Boston’s newsletters.

NBC10 Boston
Aerial image of Swayze's home

"It used to be picturesque to come up the driveway and see everything," Swayze said. "But now, it looks like I just live in an abandoned lot. Everything is in disarray."

It has been that way since Jan. 4, 2022, when Swayze's oldest son got home and discovered heating oil seeping from the floor of the basement. By the time it could be contained, more than 100 gallons had leaked from the tank.

Swayze and his wife, Olivia Amirault, rushed home from a dinner date when they received the call.

"It was horrible. It was really shocking," Amirault said. "Within minutes of being inside the house, we started getting headaches and feeling nauseous."

At that moment, the couple had no idea of what they were in for.

NBC10 Boston
Swayze's oil tank that leaked

As the NBC10 Boston Investigators have reported for the past several years, heating oil spills can financially cripple homeowners. That's because coverage is excluded from the typical home insurance policy.

However, according to documents filed by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, which tracks and oversees hazardous waste spills, the leak was caused when a "threaded pipe fitting on the bottom of the tank was accidentally broken" by a technician with McDonald Heating, Air Conditioning & Plumbing, who had performed maintenance work earlier that day.

McDonald's insurance provider eventually accepted the claim and a comprehensive environmental cleanup began.

"Our house was a hazmat zone," Swayze said.

NBC10 Boston
Evan Swayze

The work included week after week of digging up concrete in the basement and dirt in the front yard to figure out how far the heating oil had spread. During the day, a high-powered vacuum truck sucked up contaminated soil.

Swayze, an overnight emergency room doctor, often stayed in a hotel to catch up on sleep during the day. The ER physician said he eventually cut back his hours to deal with the ongoing dilemma.

"Just the noise pollution was really disruptive," Amirault said. "It does have a significant impact on mental health."

NBC10 Boston
Boarded-up front door at Swayze's home

When the couple was finally nearing the finish line of the cleanup process more than a year after the spill, they received stunning news from the insurance provider: The HVAC company's $1 million insurance policy had been exhausted and there would be no more money provided for the substantial repair work still ahead.

"That just seemed outrageous," Amirault said. "It was very disheartening."

Kevin Beaulieu is a licensed site professional who has overseen environmental cleanups in New England for the past 30 years.

"Normally, they don't get over $100,000 or $200,000, in my experience," Beaulieu said when he met us at the Rutland property. "Those are the high-end spills."

NBC10 Boston
Kevin Beaulieu

Beaulieu said costlier cleanups involve complicating factors, like affected drinking water supply, or drastic remediation efforts like lifting a home off its foundation to access contaminated soil. The Rutland cleanup did not feature any of the factors, Beaulieu said.

An environmental consultant hired by the family wrote a letter to the insurance provider, saying, "the amount spent appears completely out of line with our professional experience."

A spokesperson with the Massachusetts DEP said that while the agency doesn't track cleanup costs because insurance doesn't fall under its jurisdiction, these types of cleanups anecdotally fall within the $100,000 to $150,000 range.

"I have never heard of a cleanup that costs $1 million," Beaulieu said. "Why does this cost so much? Who's watching the ball at the end of the day? Why wasn't someone paying attention to what was getting paid?"

NBC10 Boston
Swayze's home before the spill

We contacted the insurance company, CapSpecialty, and posed those questions. An attorney with the company called back and said the insurance provider does not comment on customer claims or policies.

Meanwhile, when the family turned to the HVAC company for compensation to cover the remaining damage and repair work, they received a letter back, denying the company had caused the release of fuel oil.

Instead, the letter stated that a technician would have noticed the leak prior to leaving the house and suggested it could have been caused by Swayze's son working out in the adjacent basement weight room.

"I was extremely angry. I was livid," Swayze said. "It's really frustrating when people don't take accountability for their actions."

We called, emailed and stopped by McDonald's business office in Auburn, but have yet to receive any response from the HVAC company.

With savings already drained from legal and environmental consulting fees, the family does not have the resources to pursue a litigation battle. Instead, Swayze said he is taking out hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans to put the pieces back together at the Rutland property.

Amirault said she is leaving her career in the Air Force to land a higher-paying nursing job.

Olivia Amirault

"The military is a career that is near and dear to my heart," she said. "It's very disappointing to have to walk away from something because of a situation that is completely out of my hands."

The NBC10 Boston Investigators first put a spotlight on the financially devastating issue in 2019.

Katherine Hamelin, a Sutton widow, endured the nightmare scenario when she discovered a heating oil spill inside her home.

And Donna Baron, a Blackstone mother of three kids, discovered she was on the hook for the cleanup costs of an oil spill that happened years before she bought the home.

The DEP ultimately stepped in to handle the required remediation, admitting it had failed to follow up on the condition of the property for years before Barron purchased it.

State records show there are an average of roughly 120 heating oil spills per year across Massachusetts.

As all the families we've interviewed discovered, there is a relatively inexpensive insurance rider available to homeowners that covers the damage and cleanup costs. However, property owners must know to ask about it.

Following our series of stories in 2019, there was a 14% increase in the number of homeowners who purchased the policies, an increase the DEP attributed to the NBC10 Boston coverage.

There are efforts on Beacon Hill to make insurance coverage mandatory for all homeowners.

Until that happens, people who have experienced the nightmare of a heating oil spill are urging people to be proactive.

Swayze, who served multiple deployments overseas, calls the heating oil spill cleanup the worst experience he has endured.

"I honestly have PTSD from this," Swayze said. "This kind of experience is just incredibly infuriating, because you're really sacrificing time and quality of life, and it seems like for no good reason."

Ryan Kath can be reached at You can follow him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Contact Us