‘I'm So Grateful!' State Will Pay for Homeowner's Heating Oil Spill Cleanup

After NBC10 Boston investigation highlighted Blackstone woman’s frustrating ordeal, DEP agrees to pick up the tab

A Blackstone homeowner is expressing relief that a huge financial burden is off her shoulders.

As an NBC10 Boston investigation detailed in February, it looked like Donna Barron would be on the hook for a costly heating oil spill cleanup, an incident that occurred years before she bought the property.

However, after our story highlighted the frustrating ordeal, a state agency has agreed to pick up the tab.

“I’m so grateful!” Barron expressed. “It is a great feeling. It’s awesome and amazing.”

We caught up with Barron outside her home on July 15. Nearby, workers with heavy machinery drilled holes in her yard. They removed large plastic tubes filled with soil samples, which will be sent to a lab and tested for contamination.

It’s not the type of project you’d typically like to see in your yard, but Barron was almost giddy because the expensive process is no longer coming out of her own pocket.

Instead, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has agreed to pick up the tab.

“I was ecstatic,” Barron recalled about getting the phone call from an employee at DEP. “It was like a week before my birthday. Best birthday present ever!”

It was a stark contrast from when we first introduced you to Barron earlier this year.

The mother of three kids had recently bought the Blackstone home when she got a letter from the DEP, which informed her there had been a heating oil spill 11 years ago and two separate property owners earlier.

According to the letter, which described the situation as an “urgent legal matter,” the 200-gallon spill from an above-ground storage tank had never been fully cleaned up. Even worse, the letter stated she was responsible for the cost of the cleanup as the current property owner.

“I was completely blindsided,” Barron told us in February. “I’m losing sleep and having nightmares about this.”

We learned the DEP had failed to follow up on the contamination site for more than a decade, allowing the property to change hands without any oversight. The issue did not show up on a title search when Barron bought the house, either.

Search for a property in the DEP hazardous waste database

Despite those details, the DEP still insisted Barron was responsible for the cleanup, basically a “you own the house, you own the problem” legal argument.

Just to test the soil, Barron received estimates of about $20,000.

That is usually just the beginning. Our follow-up investigation in March showed how heating oil spill cleanup costs can quickly soar into six figures.

Even worse, the catastrophes are often not covered by home insurance because most policies have a pollution exclusion. As a result, homeowners are forced to clean out retirement savings or college funds for intensive projects that sometimes require moving homes off their foundations.

When we asked about why the DEP had changed its mind, department spokesman Ed Coletta said the “unique circumstances” about Barron’s property likely gave her a defense against financial liability.

“Due to the age of the spill, the lack of information about the spill, and the extent of renovation work done at the site by a prior owner, MassDEP decided to conduct assessment work at our cost to determine if any oil contamination is present that requires cleanup,” Coletta wrote in an email.

He added the agency is evaluating whether any of the taxpayer-funded costs can be recovered from the previous owners.

Susan Crane, an environmental attorney with more than 25 years of experience with heating oil spills, said it was a remarkable change of heart from the DEP.

“Absent emergency conditions, I’ve not seen DEP step in like this before,” Crane said.

As we previously reported, there are about 118 spills per year in Massachusetts, according to state records.

There is an insurance rider available that provides $100,000 of coverage. However, you have to know to ask about it and we found most people are in the dark: Only about 5% of homes with heating oil are protected.

Crane said Barron’s story is another reminder of why insurance companies should be required to pay the cost of heating oil spill cleanups, a state law change proposed by Sen. Anne Gobi.

“The onus to pay for these costly cleanups really should be on insurers, as almost every single homeowner who purchases insurance would expect,” Crane argued.

Barron told us she’s already called her insurance agent to make sure she is covered in the event of a spill.

She is now crossing her fingers, hoping the remnants of oil have disappeared since first sinking into the ground a dozen years ago. She is understandably anxious to put the financial headache behind her and relieved the DEP agrees it just wouldn’t be fair for her to pick up the tab.

“Thank you NBC10 Boston!” Barron said with a smile. “I can’t thank you enough.”

Ryan Kath can be reached at ryan.kath@nbcuni.com. You can follow him on Twitter or connect on Facebook.

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