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Cleaning Up a Messy Past

Fairfax tank farm has cleaned things up, but smaller incidents serve as reminders.

When hazardous materials are constantly on the move, even the slightest spill can trigger memories of a disastrous leak about 16 years ago.

The Fairfax City tank farm, located just off Pickett Road, stores four petroleum companies’ fuel and gasoline: Citgo, BP/Amoco, Motiva and TransMontaigne. An oil tanker truck was loading gasoline from a BP/Amoco loading dock on Tuesday, Feb. 19, when a leak occurred, spilling nearly 1,000 gallons of premium grade gasoline onto the loading rack area. In that instance, the spill was contained and posed no threat to the community, said Capt. Richard Miller, of the Fairfax City Fire Department.

But in 1990, a different kind of spill caused a much larger problem for the city and surrounding area. An underground leak in September of that year caused about seven feet of oil to show up in a private water well on the Fairfax County/Fairfax City line, according to county data. It was a disaster one nearby resident said was bound to happen.

“Going back to when the tank farm was built, engineers warned that the technology hadn’t risen to the level that guaranteed that [the tanks] wouldn’t leak,” said Michael Hausfeld, an attorney and Mantua subdivision resident — the Fairfax County community that was most affected by the 1990 leak.

The engineers warned of aboveground and underground leaks or spills, and they were right, said Hausfeld.

The company at fault for the 1990 leak was Star-Texaco, and Hausfeld represented the Mantua community as counsel. Some of the Mantua properties that were over the underground plume of oil had oil seeping up into the backyards and basements of the homes, recalls Ron Katz, a Mantua resident. Hausfeld was able to work out a settlement with Texaco, forcing the oil company to purchase about 90 homes, with a promise to buy several others if their owners couldn’t sell.

“You couldn’t give away a home in that area at that time,” said Katz.

As a result of the leak, which totaled an estimated 250,000 gallons of diesel oil, jet fuel and gasoline, the City of Fairfax rezoned the tank farm to make the property a nonconforming use, meaning the facility would not be allowed to expand, said Bob Sisson, Fairfax city manager. The farm does operate under federal environmental standards though, so technology upgrades and maintenance are permitted.

“Texaco did demonstrate corporate responsibility for the leak,” said Sisson. “To this day, the cleanup continues.”

Texaco spent millions of dollars on the cleanup and installation of a groundwater cleansing system that now protects the perimeter of Mantua, said Sisson. The company also contributed money to Mantua Elementary and covered the city’s expenses from the spill, in addition to executing contracts with the Mantua homeowners whose properties were not purchased as part of the settlement. The 10-year contracts provided that if a homeowner couldn’t sell his or her home, Texaco would purchase it at about 90 percent of its market value, recalls Katz. Texaco still owns 31 of the original homes purchased, said John Jennison, the Mantua Citizens Association president.

“[Texaco] released most of them by sale to individuals, and held onto the ones that are directly over the plume,” said Jennison."

Of the 31 homes, one is vacant and either renters or caretakers occupy the other 30, he said.

“We have been told [those homes are] 100 percent safe now, otherwise nobody should be living there,” said Jennison.

Jennison credits both the city and county fire departments for the way accidents at the facility are handled, and said Supervisor Linda Smyth (D-Providence), Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis (R-34) and Del. David Bulova (D-37) all make sure proper oversight of the facility and its monitoring systems is in place.

Andrew Wilson, the city's fire marshall, said the state department of environmental quality inspects the site about once a year. The fire marshall's office inspects each of the four companies that operate the tank farm monthly, or one company per week, to make sure that when accidents do happen, they are contained and pose little to no threat to the environment and the community. Wilson said inspectors look at the automatic alarms on the tanks, fire pumps and sprinkler systems, and they walk around the tank fields to look for any indications of leaks. They also check on whether drivers are loading fuel safely, he said.

A problem with the tanker truck is what occurred in the Feb. 19 aboveground spill. It was an isolated incident that was caused by the weather, said Wilson. But whether it's the tanks themselves, the truck drivers, the trucks or the pipes, it is a risky operation overall, said Sisson.

The containment system caught the runoff during the Feb. 19 spill and pumped it back into a recycling system, as it was designed to do, said Miller. Aboveground spills would need to pass through three intricate containment systems before any of it would reach Accotink Creek — a very unlikely process, said Miller.

“People do feel very safe,” said Jennison. “But if I had my preference the tank farm would be shut down and converted to green space use for ball fields and parks.”

Hausfeld agreed the facility should have been shut down years ago, but recognized that it’s a private facility, so not much can be done. “It’s a poor facility, in a poor place,” said Hausfeld. Sisson said that businesses have the right to operate, as long as they do so legally.

“It is a hazardous operation, however now I think we can consider it a model facility for the installations they have made there to make it a safe facility,” said Sisson.