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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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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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