New Haven church cleans up oil spill

NEW HAVEN — When a group of churchgoers met at the United Reformed Church of New Haven on Feb. 1, they discovered that kerosene had sullied their place of worship. Approximately 800 gallons of the fuel burst from a storage tank in the church’s attic, dousing rooms in thick, toxic petroleum, and shutting the building down for services.
Two months later they are still dealing with the spill.
The incident, caused by a malfunctioning day tank, did not directly spill oil into all rooms of the church. The kerosene pooled in the corner of the attic’s northern end before dripping down to the rooms below.
According to the “Spill Response Report” filed by the state-hired consulting firm Verterre, “The fuel … flowed down the walls and through screw holes in the attic floor impacting insulation, lighting fixtures, ductwork, sheetrock and the floor beneath. Furniture and other items in the nursery and mop room beneath were also impacted.”
Oil also spewed out of the ventilation pipe, down the side of the building and into the yard and perimeter drain — wrapping around the circumference of the church.
Despite the kerosene’s inside confinement to the northwest wing of the church, Verterre found toxic levels of contaminants along baseboards on the building’s southern end.
“That’s all because of the perimeter drain,” said project manager Tami Wuestenberg of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). “The fuel leaked down into that perimeter drain and followed it all the way around the building.”
Verterre reported that when staffers first arrived on the scene, “The interior of the church was heavily impacted with vapors.”
An error in the furnace system’s assembly set off this catastrophe, according to the spill response report.
“The spill didn’t have anything to do with the actual storage tank itself,” Wuestenberg said. “It was the pumping system in the day tank and the return line.”
When the day tank’s “relay” malfunctioned, it allowed the outdoor storage tank to continue pumping fuel. The 1,000- gallon, above-ground fuel tank — which the spill response report said had just been filled to the brim on Jan. 26 and from which the heating system drew only an estimated 40 gallons per day — continued to pump all of its fuel into a 10-15 gallon space in the day tank, causing oil to pour into the attic and out through the vent that leads to the perimeter drain, according to the Verterre report.
“Later, Verterre learned that the return line had been mistakenly plumbed to the interstitial space of the tank,” According to the spill response report.
Neither the spill response report nor Wuestenberg were able to point to an individual at fault.
Verterre removed windows, furnaces, walls and floors to allow for cleaning. A cleaning agent called Biosolve was then used to remove kerosene from exposed steel. Air monitoring systems were set up, highly contaminated materials were disposed of, and absorbent pads were used to sop up extra oil.
Contaminated soil and snow was dug up, and, according to Wuestenberg, is being stockpiled using state-authorized methods in a separate portion of the church’s property that will be monitored annually.
Dams were constructed at the end of the perimeter drain to halt the spread of spilled fuel. A water treatment system was put into place and water was then flushed into the drain. The water pumped the excess oil through a carbon treatment system to collect petroleum because it sticks to carbon. The discharged water is thus clean, said Wuestenberg.
“As of Feb. 16, Verterre estimated that approximately 120 gallons of product have been recovered from booms, pads, impacted materials and the flushing of the perimeter drain,” read the spill response report.
After the accident, the church was listed on the DEC’s spill site database, but it will likely move to the DEC’s hazardous waste site list in the upcoming weeks because the site will require ongoing monitoring, analysis and remediation.
Wuestenberg said that move to the hazardous waste site list will take place “pretty much as soon as I write the letter.”
Although church officials declined to speculate on cleanup costs, it likely will not be cheap. For above ground storage tank spills such as this one, the state offers $25,000 in petroleum cleanup funds for uninsured costs.
“Anything spent above and beyond that will be up to the property owner,” said Wuestenberg.
Church officials refrained from all comments on this issue because they are currently negotiating with their insurance company, Church Mutual.
Wuestenberg was not 100 percent clear as to how costs would be divided, but she did say, “I think that the insurance company is paying for any impacts to the building and any impacts to the soil or groundwater are not covered … the insurance company has said that they might be willing to pay a bit above and beyond, but I am sure that the church will have to come up with some money.”
According to the church’s website, it has been holding services at the Champlain Valley Christian Reformed Church in Vergennes.
A recent report, Wuestenberg said, found that although air along the baseboard was toxic, the overall airspace inside the building was not especially harmful.
“This isn’t somebody’s living space. This is somebody going in here and breathing this air for one hour a week and the level would have to be really significant to have any risk impact on a person,” she added.
Wuestenberg believes that services at the New Haven United Reformed Church could resume in the near future. “I think it should be usable fairly soon.”
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected].

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