The Magazine

Tanks a Lot

Connecticut’s environmental bureaucracy versus a 92-year-old war hero.

Mar 15, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 25 • By PATRICK COOKE
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Lime Rock, Conn.

Tanks a Lot

This is the tale of a man who tried to do the right thing. It begins in the fall of 2007 when John Fitch, then 90, went out into his yard and lowered a measuring pole down the filler tube of one of the two 1,000 gallon heating oil tanks that have been buried on his property since he bought his Lime Rock, Connecticut, home in 1958. Fitch had suspected one of his tanks might be leaking, and when the wooden pole came up showing a lower-than-expected level, he immediately called an environmental excavator and notified the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

“That’s when the State of Connecticut descended upon me like locusts,” says Fitch, seated at the dining room table of his drafty 18th-century home. Piled around him are teetering stacks of papers and files, all of them pertaining to his dispute with the state. Fifteen-foot high mountains of soil covered with blue and white tarps are visible through the windows. “Their demands just never stop.”

When problems were first discovered, Fitch had no objection to testing for contamination, and spent $10,000 to sample the soil around his tanks. Test results showed a petroleum concentration of 1.5 milligrams per liter, but he says he could find no one at DEP to tell him if that result constituted a hazard. The department ordered him to test, at his own expense, any potable wells, including his own, within 500 feet of the property. The DEP acknowledged that those water samples showed no contamination. “I tested seven wells in the vicinity—even wells uphill from my yard,” says Fitch. “At this point they’ve all been tested twice. I’ve been drinking from my own well for 50 years. I’m 92. My wife was 91 when she died last year. That water was the Fountain of Youth for us!”

Next, Fitch paid a contractor to unearth the tanks, and the DEP ordered further soil testing. More than 3,000 tons of dirt came up, some clean, some with contamination levels ten times the DEP limit. Unfortunately, the contractor mixed good soil with bad so the DEP decreed that all 3,000 tons would need to be hauled away and destroyed. He would then have to pay for 3,000 tons of clean topsoil to fill in the hole. The DEP made no offer of aid, but instead provided Fitch a list of state-approved soil contamination consultants with instructions to hire one of them to expedite the process. There were 270 names on the list from all over the Northeast. “They were just names and phone numbers,” he says. “I don’t know a good soil consultant from a bad one. Do you? I still haven’t hired anybody.”

The DEP insisted Fitch pay for a permit to keep contaminated soil on his property until he could come up with a way to pay for getting rid of it. At upwards of $70 per ton, the removal estimates were crushing. “The state said they wanted me to have the dirt hauled down to an incinerator on the Connecticut coast. The whole 3,000 tons. In special trucks. Imagine the fuel you’d expend just getting it down there. And more fuel to burn it up. It’s ecologically ridiculous.”

While Fitch was still struggling to figure out his next move, the state notified his local town government about the oil seepage. “They warned everybody,” he says. “The first selectman, the real estate agents, everybody. The DEP made me put up signs in front of my house saying Beware of contamination! In effect they condemned the property.” 

In 2008 the town lowered the assessed value of his home by $80,000. “I’m a leper in this community,” he says. 

It seems impossible that John Fitch would ever be considered a pariah. He’s not very rich, but he has lived a rich and noble life as an American patriot and sportsman.

During World War II, Fitch flew A‑20 bombers before transferring to P-51 Mustang fighters, one of a handful of pilots ever to fly both types of aircraft. It was in a Mustang that he scored a rare kill of an ME‑262, the super fast German jet fighter. He was later shot down himself, was wounded, and bombed by his own air force while being transported by train to a Nazi POW camp.

After the war, Fitch became a European auto racing star and, ironically, an official driver for Mercedes. He was, in fact, a codriver of the car involved in the worst spectator disaster in auto racing history, the 1955 crash at Le Mans that killed 84 spectators and ended Mercedes’ involvement in the sport. John Fitch may be the only man to have won both the Mille Miglia (an open-road endurance race) and a Purple Heart. 

In later years, he invented, among other things, the “Fitch Barrier,” the sand-filled yellow barrels seen today at off ramps on freeways across the country. (The creator did his own testing by driving into them head on.) The device has been credited with saving thousands of lives. “The Connecticut Governor even declared John Fitch Day a few years ago,” he says, more bemused than bitter.

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