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Hidden heating oil tanks buried on properties may emit potentially cancer-causing fumes

Oregon Health Authority said the oil in underground heating oil tanks can spread beneath homes and into groundwater, give off fumes and possibly cause cancer as well as damage to the liver, kidneys and nervous system.

State authorities told KATU you could be exposed to potentially cancer-causing substances from a hidden heating oil tank buried on your property.

And those substances can be odorless, so you'd never know.

"There are real health risks coming from breathing the constituents," said Jack Andrews, the owner and operator of Rush Locates, a Portland-based business that finds heating tanks.

Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) estimates around 100,000 properties have underground oil tanks statewide, but it only knows the locations of about 50,000 of them.

DEQ officials couldn't say for sure how many tanks are buried in Oregon since for decades in many places tracking was not required.

Last year Brad McKerihan and his partner, Jesse Martin, were in the market for a new home.

In December they found one they liked in Northeast Portland.

"It's a good neighborhood here in Montavilla," McKerihan told KATU. "We were looking for an old house that we could work on."

The couple made an offer but during the home inspection process, they hit a snag. Their real estate agent hired Andrews to check for an underground heating oil tank.

And he found one with a dipstick lying nearby, which Andrews said is unusual.

"You unscrew the tank, you stick this in there, you see how much oil you've got," he explained, showing a KATU reporter how the dipstick would work on the side of McKerihan's house.

To find the tanks, Andrews said he pulls local records, if they exist, and uses what he calls his toys, including a split-box metal detector, which finds large, metal objects, a magnetic detector, technically called a fluxgate magnetometer, and a push probe, which Andrews said is basically a long metal rod you shove into the dirt to "figure out what's down there."

Andrews charges $100 to check for tanks and he only does the locating.

At McKerihan's house, he recommended another company, Environmental Works, to decommission the tank, which he found on the side of the home.

Environmental Works said the home seller paid around $1,100 for the service, a relatively low price because the tank didn't leak.

"The DEQ standards for decommission involve clean soil samples, that the health of people is not impacted, that the tank is cleaned out, that there's basically no more oil in it to continue leaking and that it's filled in with an approved material or completely removed," Andrews said.

McKerihan said he's happy with what Environmental Works, Andrews and his real estate agent did for him.

"She said it was pretty normal. This is an old house. It was built in 1913," he explained.

Mike Kortenhof, the manager of the DEQ's underground storage tank inspection and heating tank program, said any home built before 1970, especially in an urban area, likely has an underground tank. Kortenhof said home sellers are required to tell buyers about tanks if they know about them.

Oregon Health Authority said the oil in the tanks, which is basically diesel fuel, is flammable and potentially explosive. The agency also said it can spread beneath homes and into groundwater, give off fumes and possibly cause cancer as well as damage to the liver, kidneys and nervous system. The less serious possible health effects include headaches, dizziness, light-headedness, drowsiness, nausea, eye and respiratory irritation.

"Sometimes homeowners 20 years ago tried to hide the oil tank. They cut off the fill pipe, they buried it. They put concrete over it," Andrews said. "Especially back in the '90s there were some kind of fly-by-night companies that burned a few people, said they decommissioned the tanks, said they did the work but actually didn't."

Andrews said decommissioning is usually pretty painless though sometimes expensive.

"The price can go from a thousand dollars to $10,000 depending on the quality of the tank and how long it had been leaking and stuff like that," Andrews explained.

"That's pretty scary stuff," said McKerihan adding that he knew nothing about the subject before. "Make sure that you get your inspection. Find out if you have an oil tank underneath your house or by your house somewhere and make sure that it's decommissioned so there's not leaks."

Click here for information from the DEQ on how to legally find and decommission underground heating oil tanks.

Authorities in Washington said they don't keep track of how many unused underground heating oil tanks there are in the state.

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