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.

Eleven years ago, the state of Connecticut’s Underground Storage Tank Petroleum Cleanup Account helped home-owners like Fitch pay for unforeseen spill problems. Today it still pays for the cleanup of businesses with underground tanks, such as gas stations, but in 2001 the legislature voted to discontinue the program for private property owners. It kept the strict residential remediation requirements in place, but passed all the financial responsibility on to private citizens.

Patrick Bowe, director of remediation for the DEP, made the state’s position clear last year in a letter regarding the Fitch case. “Currently all residents in Connecticut are required by statute to rely on their own resources .  .  . for resolving the cost of the clean up,” he wrote. If the state spends any of its own money, Bowe continued, “the DEP is obligated to seek cost recovery (of up to triple damages) from the responsible party and may also lien the property involved.” He concluded: “[We] are confident that Mr. Fitch will be able to resolve his oil spill issues.”

It’s a certainty other homeowners in Litchfield County, who rely on underground heating tanks, are lying very low indeed, waiting to see what happens in Lime Rock. Even Fitch’s state senator, Andrew Roraback, told the local Lakeville Journal that he would characterize the current policy as, “don’t ask, don’t tell,” when dealing with oil tanks and the DEP.

Fitch would like the state to allow him to move his contaminated soil to the far end of his five-acre property and allow naturally occurring microbes and sunlight to eventually neutralize the contaminants, a recognized remediation method known as “natural attenuation.” But, he says, “the DEP told me that was illegal.” In the end he estimates that to redeem the land the way the state wants, in addition to attorney’s fees and years of ongoing testing, will cost him half a million dollars.

Fitch walks down the driveway away from his house, a historically protected landmark. He shakes his head at the mountains of dirt that threaten to ruin him. I ask him what advice he would give to someone about to face the same difficulties.

He pauses for a moment. “Suicide,” he says, and smiles broadly. But the smile fades. “Who’s going to buy this place?” he asks, speculating on where the money might come from. “What could I even get for it? I guess I should have kept my mouth shut. But I thought I was doing my duty.”

Patrick Cooke is a writer in New York.

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