Thanks to the efforts of Councilman Jay Wenk and other volunteers, aging heating oil tanks will no longer endanger the town’s water supply. The last of six tanks in the Bearsville Flats area are finally out of the ground and remediation work will begin soon on two that were found to be leaking, Wenk said during a news conference at Town Hall, October 6. One of the leaking tanks was on Harder Road and the other on Overlook Drive. Cleanup details will come once the homeowners sign a contract with Tank Masters Environmental Inc. of Chester. Expenses for any cleanup from leaks are the responsibilities of the homeowners.
Wenk called the news conference to highlight the rules that keep municipalities from dealing with such problems. “No municipality in the state of New York has the authority to do diddly about homeowners’ buried fuel tanks,” Wenk said. “The DEC regulations take care of tanks down to 1100 gallons and homeowners’ fuel tanks are most typically 275 gallons, so that they are regulatorily invisible.”
Though it was feared that these tanks, the last to be replaced in a neighborhood build in the late 1950s and early 1960s, posed grave danger to the Bearsville aquifer that feeds the town’s municipal water supply due to their age and close proximity to the town wells, Woodstock lacked the authority to act in an official capacity. All had capacities less than 1100 gallons.
So Wenk solicited and received about $5,000 in private donations to help the property owners pay to get the tanks removed. “The town has no legal right to go on to private property and to touch them,” Wenk said of the tanks. “The town has no ability to declare a health emergency and do something about cleaning up the tanks and/or removing them and putting the cost onto the tax bill.”
While the homeowners involved expressed willingness to do something about the tanks, many of which are 55 years old, all did not have the financial means to foot the entire bill. Without help from government agencies, private funds were necessary.
The state Legislature, said Wenk, “must adopt legislation enabling municipalities to address the serious threat posed by buried home fuel tanks without depending on private donations for such purposes.”
Wenk invited state Senator Cecilia Tkaczyk, Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, Ulster County Legislator Donald Gregorius and Ulster County Executive Michael Hein to the press conference. None attended.
“I’m very sorry the senator and the assemblyman aren’t here, because obviously we want to push this issue,” Wenk said.
“This administration is blessed with four very hard-working members of the council. That said, this effort, led by Jay Wenk over these last two years to get these last stubborn tanks out of the ground has simply been monumental,” said Supervisor Jeremy Wilber. “And he has not only given us security with regard to our aquifer, but as it turns out, he prevented a catastrophe.”
The town had been successful up until 2003 or 2004 to get what Wilber called the “low-hanging fruit,” cajoling many homeowners to remove their underground tanks thanks to a state program offering tax rebates up to $500. “Despite pleas at least from the town of Woodstock, perhaps from other municipalities, that rebate was rescinded and it hasn’t been restored,” Wilber said. “Again, it was Jay’s dogged efforts in raising the funds, persuading these people that this is not only a responsible thing to do on behalf of the aquifer, but also on behalf of themselves — because this catastrophe that I just alluded to would not only have been a catastrophe to the environment and to the aquifer, but it also would’ve been a catastrophe to the finances of these people.”
This is not a recent issue. Efforts to identify and remove these tanks go back at least 30 years when surveys were done in the area. In the mid-90s, Ann Brandt, then chair of the Environmental Commission, tried to get a water protection law in place. The Town Board passed that law in December 2007, but the next administration failed to file it with the state when it took over in 2008, according to Wilber.
Wenk said he couldn’t have accomplished this work without the help of Jerry Washington, who, in years past, had personally gone out and discovered the locations of the tanks by spotting the filler pipes and vent holes. Washington identified about 30-35 buried tanks in the Bearsville Flats area. While ideally all tanks should be removed and replaced, he focused on the ones posing the biggest threat.
“All this work went on for many, many years without having come to fruition. It is only since the survey we did in 2008 and essentially the guts that Wenk has shown to carry this thing through to near conclusion and I appreciate it. And the town should appreciate it,” Washington said.
Wenk thanked Wilber for his assistance in the tank issue, noting Wilber has accompanied him to Albany to try to get some help from the government. Unfortunately, it didn’t result in a response. “We were successfully put off by every aspect of state government you can point a finger at,” Wenk said.
Wenk cited a decade-old case where then town of Warwick passed a law regulating homeowners’ underground heating oil tanks. The law is on hold thanks to a successful appeal by the Hudson Valley Oil Delivery Consortium and an injunction that followed.
When Warwick asked for help from the state Attorney General’s office, it was and still is silent on the matter.
Wenk said this combined with the lawmakers’ inaction shows the Legislature is “marching in lockstep” with the oil industry. “There is an evil consortium of oil and Legislature that is keeping us in trouble,” Wenk said.