If you heat your home with oil, as so many of us in New England do, you should be aware of a new Massachusetts law regarding home heating oil tanks.  The law requires certain upgrades that make leaks from your tank less likely.  This may include either a safety valve or an oil supply line with a protective sleeve.  If these features are already part of your system, and if they were installed after 1990, you may not need to take any additional steps now.  But if you don’t have one or both of these important features, we urge you to have them installed.  It’s well worth the estimated $150 to $350 the upgrade will cost, and it’s the law.

Not maintaining your oil tank can have disastrous consequences.  When it comes to oil spills, we’ve seen it all.  Oil storage tanks in people’s basements that fail catastrophically at the seams, spraying oil all over the contents of the basement.  Floodwater in basements floating oil tanks upward until the feed line breaks.  Vent lines plugged by animal nests or leaves, causing the tank to overpressurize and burst during filling.  Imagine the heartbreak of tossing the entire oil-soaked contents of your basement into a dumpster, not to mention the cost of the clean-up!

To make matters even worse, a sudden release of more than ten gallons of oil to your basement may be reportable to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP), and you, as the homeowner, become liable for the cleanup.  Released oil often migrates quickly through cracks in basement floors to the soil below the house.  Cleaning up soil and groundwater impacts after an oil spill can be very costly.  MassDEP estimates typical residential oil releases cost $20,000 to $50,000 to clean up, while some sites run over $200,000.  That’s a pretty big unexpected expense to try to squeeze into your household budget.

Fortunately, the new regulations have a second part: an obligation for homeowner insurance companies to offer coverage for home heating oil spills.  Many homeowners are shocked to learn (sometimes too late) that their insurance doesn’t cover spills from their heating system.  The new coverage won’t be automatically added to your policy; you’ll need to ask for it, and pay a bit extra for the coverage.  In our opinion, it’s well worth it to avoid the nightmare scenario of a large oil spill in your basement that you end up liable for on your own nickel.  So contact your oil burner service company to see if you need an upgrade, and contact your insurance company to inquire about oil spill coverage.


Sequoia National Park

This week we rounded out our trip to four western US national parks with a visit to Sequoia.  This part of the trip was a little crazy because we had to drive about 500 miles in one day to go from Zion Park in southern Utah to the little California town of Lemon Cove just outside of Sequoia, but I am so glad we did.  Nestled high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the groves of Sequoia trees lack the sheer geologic drama of Zion, Bryce and the Grand Canyons, but these majestic trees convey a sense of timelessness that is hard to put into words.

I learned at the visitor’s center that these giant trees only grow in 75 locations in the high Sierras and all are at elevations between 5,000 and 7,500 feet above see level.  The oldest are believed to be 3,000 years old; they were already giants when the Magna Carta was written.  While they are perfectly adapted to the rare ecological niche they occupy, they have no capacity to live outside of it.

Standing next to them, I reminded myself that the Sequoia trees were just plants; admittedly very big, very old plants.  Despite efforts to hang on to scientific objectivity, it kept slipping away; they are truly awe inspiring.

Getting to Sequoia Park is inconvenient; it is not really on the way to anyplace else.  The lodge we stayed at seemed designed with user unfriendliness in mind;  let me add that the park’s road system is under reconstruction with regular long delays.   Yet walking among these giant ancient trees is likely to be one of the most memorable parts of this trip out west.

This week we are visiting the southwestern US and arrived in canyon country yesterday.  Wow, the scenery just driving here from Las Vegas was breath taking!  Here are two wonderful experiences that were unexpected.  First, driving out of Vegas on interstate 15, the interstate passes directly through Virgin River Canyon.  I can not imagine what it took to build this stretch of road, but it is one of the most spectacular views from a highway that I have ever seen.

The second treat was a the Rocking V Cafe in Kanab Utah.  A restaurant in the small town of Kanab Utah conveniently located between the north rim of the Grand Canyon, Zion and Bryce National Parks.  Some of the best prepared food I have ever had and the prices are quite reasonable.  The corn meal crusted pan fried ruby trout is to die for.

A visit to the High Line Park in Manhattan made skipping work last week look like a stroke of genius. Rather than demolish an abandoned overgrown elevated freight track that once served upper story loading docks, City Parks used the community’s enthusiasm and the track’s unique architectural features to transform this former eye-sore into a linear park. The last train ran the High Line in 1980, carrying a load of frozen turkeys.

Clever paving intersperses plantings with the former rail tracks, ample benches and even a sunning lawn. The High Line elevates City spirits as it winds through 20 west side city blocks. Like creatively used space elsewhere, the High Line has sparked a building boom and urban renaissance, with apartment rental notice taglines now reading “near the High Line”. We saw butterfly and bee-filled flower gardens (yes beehives are allowed in the City), birdhouses, sculptures, stark brick walls, airy new chrome and glass, the gaiety of tourists and blasé kindness of New Yorkers juxtaposed into a sunshine daydream memory. Yup, I could almost live in the City.

The High Line winds from Gansevoort St (W 14th St and 10th Ave) to 30th St, 11th Ave. The park is easily accessible from the West Side Highway; near Chelsea Pier and the Intrepid Museum. There are elevators for handicapped access along the way. I’d recommend a walk from south to north, because the icing on the cake was a visit to the gourmet food truck- food court at 30th Street under the High Line. There we savored a large spicy Falafel platter in a festive multi-lingual community Bier Garden atmosphere. For this seasoned urban explorer, truly one of the best meals I’ve had in NYC, and for thirteen bucks? Fuhgettaboutit!
High Line photo

Walking through the woods is a great family activity.  It’s beautiful scenery, wild animals, and it’s inexpensive.  I grew up in a very wooded area where all the neighborhood kids played in the woods.  We hiked, biked, and rode horses on those woodsy trails.  It was a wonderful playground.  The trails went on for miles.  The woods are quiet now as the children have grown and moved away.  My parents still walk those trails with their two dogs and sometimes their grandchildren.   It’s a great way to spend an afternoon.  Like me, when they are in the woods my parents will pick up trash from the trails and then toss it out when they get home.

Today, I received an email from our in-house Certified Safety Professional regarding a safety advisory from the US Forestry Service that was just too important to keep to myself.  The advisory is about “one-pot” methamphetamine manufacturing.  Water bottles and liter soda bottles are being used as “cookers” to produce methamphetamine.  When the drug makers have taken what they want out of these cookers, they just throw them away where ever they are.

While, they may look harmless, these bottles are actually highly toxic and combustible.  Five were found in National forest lands and rural areas over the past weekend.  In addition the forestry services warns about the danger of other harmful objects such as chemicals or syringes that might be in the area.

Although the advisory talks about rural areas, these same conditions may exist in vacant lots and buildings.  In addition, similar looking devices may actually be chemical bombs.  The fire marshal’s office and bomb squad has discovered several of these small bombs in unexpected places like mail boxes.  The plastic containers contain a liquid and some form of metal react chemically to cause an explosion.

So the moral here is that everyone should use extreme caution should you contact any suspicious container.  Do not touch, open or smell the material.  Contact the local authorities for assistance.


Last week I posted about environmental practitioners  limiting their opinions to the areas in which they have expertise.  From there I went off on a little rant about the importance of consultants providing data to prove their conclusions and predictions.   Today’s little lecture is on the importance of scientific results being reproducible.  Reproducibility is a bedrock scientific principle.

When scientists talk about reproducibility, they are not talking about the nocturnal habits of our species.  Instead they are referring to the ability of two scientists to be able to conduct the same experiment and come up with the same result.  The experiment could be as simple as measuring the volume of a liquid or as complex as measuring the width of an atom.  Either way, if multiple scientists are able to get the same answer, the data is said to be reproducible and therefor to have scientific merit.  On the other hand if they unable to arrive at the same result, then the resulting data is said to be “irreproducible” or “non-reproducible” and the data has no scientific credibility.

Among scientists, saying that data is non-reproducible a very serious indictment.  There is a nerdy humor publication called the Journal of Irreprocucible Results, that scientists get a big chuckle over.  The fact that irreproducible results are a source of humor, should give you a sense for their value among professionals.

So what does this have to do with environmental engineering?  Glad you asked.  I can not tell you how many times OTO has been brought in for a second opinion right before a client was getting ready to spend a large amount of money on remediation.  In these cases there is generally “data” indicating a horrible environmental problem.  Yet when we retest, we are often not able to reproduce the original data; without reproducible data, the basis for implementing the remediation didn’t make sense.   Garbage in, money out the door.  Except with so much money on the line, it’s not a joke; and yes this really happens all the time.

So remember the importance of environmental data being reproducible before you make big decisions on cleanups.  It’s really the same dictum as the old carpenter’s rule: measure twice, cut once.

We are very excited about the opportunity to share our professional experiences with all of you reading this.  We are looking forward to turning this blog into a resource with information about environmental assessment, cleanup, engineering, air quality and other topics.  We also hope to see comments from all who may be interested..  Please visit us again and check how our site is developing.

Thanks for the visit!