No safeguards for oil tank removal: homeowner

Gower Street resident afraid house will be damaged when neighbour's lawn is dug up

Published on April 29, 2009
Top photo, Gower Street resident Sean Gibbons shows the boundary line by his home and an adjoining home on Gower Street in downtown St. John's. Bottom photo, The rear of the homes on Gower Street, where digging occurred before it was stopped last Friday. - Photos by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

When Sean Gibbons heard people digging outside his Gower Street home a couple of weeks ago, he thought he was reliving a homeowner's nightmare.

In 2003, Gibbons' next door neighbour had a problem with an underground oil storage tank, which had a leaking pipe, so it was dug up and removed. Gibbons didn't think much of it, until the digging, he believes, caused his house's foundation to shift.

When Sean Gibbons heard people digging outside his Gower Street home a couple of weeks ago, he thought he was reliving a homeowner's nightmare.

In 2003, Gibbons' next door neighbour had a problem with an underground oil storage tank, which had a leaking pipe, so it was dug up and removed. Gibbons didn't think much of it, until the digging, he believes, caused his house's foundation to shift.

The movement caused about $6,000 in damage - money his insurance company wanted him to sue his neighbour to recover.

Instead of wading through the courts, he swallowed the costs.

But when Gibbons heard workers digging April 17 - this time on the property on the other side of his home - he rushed out to stop them.

Again, the problem was a leaking oil storage tank that had to be removed, as per provincial government regulations.

He said he managed to stop the workers before they went any further with the digging, after he learned they didn't have a permit from the city.

However, he said, he expects them back.

"I'm concerned that when they dig the ditch, I expect those guys have quite a bit of experience, but at the end of the day, we're dealing with ground here and foundations that are 100 years old," Gibbons said.

Since learning about the digging, he's been calling city and provincial officials, trying to find out what can be done to make sure his house isn't damaged, or what recourse he has if it is.

He's gotten mixed messages, with one official telling him the contractors are required to have an engineer on site to make sure his foundation isn't compromised, while another says there's no such requirement.

Gibbons said Deputy Mayor Ron Ellsworth even told him that he had only one recourse if something goes wrong - settle it with the neighbour.

Ellsworth told The Telegram the city issues permits, but "we don't come stand over you."

"If he feels there's something done next door that endangered his property, it's an issue between property owners," he said.

St. John's building and property management director David Blackmore backed up Ellsworth's take on the issue.

He said the cleanup of an oil leak and the removal of a tank falls under provincial environmental regulations. The city simply gives permits for the work done on site.

Blackmore also said anything that happens to another property would have to be dealt with by the property owners.

"That's a civil matter," he said.

But Gibbons doesn't want to take his neighbour - who lives in an Asian country and rents the property - to court.

He said he wants to avoid that headache and cost by ensuring steps are in place to protect his property. He says an engineer or other qualified person should be required on site to make sure no problems arise.

"If something hypothetically went wrong then, what would happen?" he said.

Gibbons said there should be some other recourse besides holding his neighbour responsible after the damage is done.

Meanwhile, according to a provincial Environment department spokeswoman, the heating oil tank regulations don't require any policing of the site to make sure removal of the leaking system doesn't affect surrounding properties. It simply requires the owner to act when a deficiency is found.

Not available

As well, any variances that might be applied for to stop the dig have to be requested by the homeowner, who, according to Gibbons, lives in another country and rents out the property. He hasn't returned calls, Gibbons said.

Attempts to reach the owner by The Telegram were unsuccessful.

Gibbons said he's frustrated by the situation. He said he wants the tank removed, too, and the land remediated, but he's afraid doing so without engineers on site could result in more trouble.

"My preference is to have it out, but I want it done properly."

emclean@thetelegram.com