Orange County

Fuel oil spill in Carrboro fouls ditches, reaches creek. Are more spills likely?

A fuel oil spill in the Plantation Acres neighborhood in Carrboro killed grass in ditches leading to Tom’s Creek.
A fuel oil spill in the Plantation Acres neighborhood in Carrboro killed grass in ditches leading to Tom’s Creek.

The pungent odor of a fuel oil spill lingers in a Carrboro neighborhood after last week’s heavy rains apparently flooded an underground storage tank.

Brian Pence and his family were away when the last storms associated with Hurricane Florence dumped several inches of rain on the town. When they returned to their Plantation Acres home on Phipps Street last week, they were met with the putrid smell of fuel oil.

He contacted town officials Wednesday morning.

Carrboro Fire Chief Susanna Williams and Fire Marshall Ray Enoch visited the site and determined the source of the fuel leak to be a neighboring property across the street from the Pences, according to town emails. But they were not able to determine how much fuel spilled. Town workers placed absorbent booms and pads in the ditches later that day to soak up any more fuel oil that may wash off.

Carrboro town workers installed hazmat absorbent booms and pads in ditches leading to Tom’s Creek that were contaminated by fuel oil spill in the Plantation Acres neighborhood. Joe Johnson

Williams said it was the second fuel oil spill in the neighborhood in the past year. A spill occurred at a house on Simpson Street last year under similar circumstances following a heavy rain fall.

Since the spill, grass in Pence’s yard has died. More is dead in his side ditch on Lorraine Street. Large swaths of brown outline the extent of standing water on his property from the storm.

“This was the last thing we expected when we got back home,” Pence said. “It’s unfortunate, not just for us, because it looks like some of the fuel oil made it to the creek.”

An inspector from the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) also was called in to investigate.

They contacted the neighbor where the contamination began. They said the homeowner had contacted a company to secure a quote for removal of the tank and remediation of the fuel leak on the affected properties, the emails said.

Efforts to reach the property owner for comment were unsuccessful.

The Pences were told not to walk on their lawn until it has been decontaminated.

Remediation of the spill will require at least the top six inches of soil be removed from the Pence’s property along with dirt from neighbors’ ditches downstream. Their ditches drain into Tom’s Creek.

A fuel oil spill in the Plantation Acres neighborhood in Carrboro killed grass in ditches leading to Tom’s Creek. Joe Johnson

“We were told that this type of fuel oil doesn’t break down easily and it will have to be dug up,” Pence said.

Pence said he did not know when remediation work could begin.

At least they haven’t been driven from their home, he said.

“We’re thankful that we can’t smell it inside,” Pence said. “There is still a smell outside, and I can only imagine what it was like earlier in the week.

Charlie Morris, who lives nearby, made a video Wednesday showing the damage caused by the fuel spill.

“My main reason for doing it was to let people who live near Tom’s Creek and they smelled oil or gas, this is why,” Morris said. “[The smell] was still pretty strong Wednesday, and it made me feel pretty sick.”

Pence would like the town to investigate how future fuel oil spills can be avoided.

“These homes built in the ‘60s and ‘70s most would have had such a tank,” Pence said. ”Often they get remediated when properties are sold, but some folks may simply have forgotten or not know that they have a tank. More accidents like this are waiting to happen.”