COHA Wants Data

Reliable information about leaks and spills is hard to get. COHA is working on that.

By Stephen Bennett

In this age of “Big Data” the Canadian Oil Heat Association is working to promote consistent, detailed reporting of leaks and spills, to be followed by prompt remediation.

Development of a so-called information hub “so everybody’s working off the same information,” was one of six goals that COHA’s president, Stephen Koch, enumerated about a year ago, all of them linked in some way to reducing risk of leaks and spills, and to improving remediation response.

The association’s other goals are to: expand COHA’s GreenTech program by adding a “best practice” certificate; eliminate conflicts of interest in spill remediation; improve fuel oil system education and information for homeowners; and adopt B139, an installation standard for oil-burning equipment.

Progress has been made in some respects over the past year, particularly in adoption of B139, Koch reported. The risk-reduction protocol created by the Canadian Standards Authority covers tanks, secondary containment within tanks, and connector pipes. It has been adopted in many key oil heat provinces, Koch said. Of those, “the only one that hasn’t adopted it yet, but will, is Nova Scotia,” probably within the next few months, Koch said.

“That allows for the technicians and the installers of the equipment to follow a consistent path that should reduce leaks and spills,” Koch said of B139.

Another of the goals—a campaign to educate consumers—is in its formative phase after some months of discussion with the national government agency Environment and Climate Change Canada. At the behest of that agency, the consumer education effort is focusing initially on the role that consumers can play in reporting a leak or spill.


“Environment Canada is stressing consistent messaging so that consumers in conversations with insurance companies, insurance brokers and regulators get the same information as they would from their distributor,” Koch said. About $35,000 in startup funding has been allocated initially to launch the information and education campaign.

Ministers of environment in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, and the Technical Safety and Standards Authority in Ontario, are also expected to contribute funding and in-kind support, Koch said.

But the need to collect information and provide it in a readily understood and useful format is a priority, Koch said.

“We’re trying to get one base where that information can be extracted,” Koch said. “The complexity of the issue is that no province does it the same right now.”

Prince Edward Island stands out, Koch said. The province registers oil heat tanks, “and that allows them to understand and monitor any issues that come about,” he said. “We don’t see that in any other province, and because of that data when there is an unwanted discharge of product is not really available to be immediately reviewed.”

Typically, Koch said, a province collects information that a leak or spill has happened and, depending upon the province, the authority responsible for dealing with it decides, at a  sometimes slow, bureaucratic pace, how best to remediate.

In the Atlantic provinces, Koch said, the standard protocol that is followed was designed originally for contaminated sites, “like a gas station that has had spills and leaks over a long period,” Koch said. That protocol is not designed for quick, effective response to a one-time leak or spill, Koch noted.

“So when we’re talking to governments neither they nor us have details of the actual spills and leaks to define what the solution should be,” he said.

COHA is working with the groups in the provinces to find a way to incorporate data collection that is consistent, Koch said. If spills and leaks in one province were to decline dramatically, for example, Koch said, “We should be able to understand that and know why that’s happening so we can provide advice and factual evidence to other provinces to implement similar measures.”

Provincial governments are required to identify spills and leaks, put together a remediation plan and sign off on it. But none of the provinces has consistent data collection, Koch said. In Ontario, for example, if there is a one-time leak or spill the Technical Safety and Standards Authority takes responsibility. But if that spill crosses a property line, or if it impacts upon a different jurisdiction, the responsibility of data collection and the task of determining what happened falls to the ministry of environment, Koch said. “So you have two separate ministries that are actually collecting data from the spill and signing off on the remediation process. That, as you can imagine, causes great concern when we’re trying to collect consistent data.”

In some cases provincial law limits access to data exclusively to government; those outside government are required to apply for access, in a process similar to the Freedom of Information Act in the U.S., Koch said, “That becomes very burdensome.”

Insurance companies have taken it upon themselves to make various requirements of homeowners if they are to qualify for coverage, Koch said. “We’re seeing decisions made by the insurer that actually put a much higher risk upon the homeowner regarding spills and leaks,” he said.

For example, insurers started requiring many homeowners to remove their tanks from basements and garages and place them outside. By doing that they increased the risk of a failure by as much as seven times, Koch said, based on research conducted by Mike Freill, a COHA board member, engineer, and owner of Mark 1 Engineering in Nova Scotia.

Koch said, “We don’t want any tanks outside.” Installing tanks outside subjects them to extreme conditions that promote interior microbial corrosion, which can cause them to fail, Koch said. Further, tanks outside are exposed to random damage from a variety of sources, “like kids playing hockey, like snow falling off a roof, like a tree limb hitting the tank,” Koch said. “Now all of a sudden there is a huge spike in failures because the tanks have been moved outside.”

There have been other complications arising from insurance requirements as well, Koch said, one being that if a tank is ten years old it must be replaced. It is based on a decision by insurers that “newer is better,” Koch said, “and that’s not necessarily the case.”

The insurance companies’ push to relocate tanks outside, combined with its insistence on replacing ten-year-old tanks, results in much greater risk of a spill or leak, Koch said. An inspection should be done at ten years to determine whether replacement is necessary, he said.

“Many of the data that we have been collecting show that older tanks that are inside last twenty to twenty-five years without any problems whatsoever, and actually are safer,” Koch said.

Installing a tank outside means having to run lines into the residence. For that kind of setup, Koch said, it’s important to ensure that there is secondary containment under the tank, and containment or some kind of monitoring system along the lines and for the filter.

Data from the Insurance Bureau of Canada show that since a requirement for double-bottom tanks was introduced in the Atlantic provinces there has been a dramatic decrease in the number and severity of spills.

Yet the cost of remediating spills increased 30% while the number of spills decreased 30%, Koch said. “Why are costs dramatically increasing when the number of spills is decreasing?” he asked.

In some instances an insurance company is affiliated with, or is the parent company, of the company that does remediation, Koch said.

“We think that needs to be abolished immediately,” he said.

The faster the response to a leak or spill, the better, and that is borne out by some data and research, Koch said. “In the U.S. we have found data showing that if you are on site within 24 hours of a spill and contain it, or at least clean up what’s on the ground, you can mitigate any damage and reduce remediation costs by thirty percent,” Koch said.

The oil heat industry in Canada, like its U.S. counterpart, sometimes finds itself competing with natural gas companies. Ontario recently announced a $100 million retrofit program to upgrade burner units to higher efficiency units, but the program is to be administered by two gas companies. COHA pointed out that most customers in rural areas use oil heat, and that they too would   benefit from rebates for installing higher-efficiency burners.

“So we’ve been working with the Ontario government to ensure that the program is available to all Ontarians,” Koch said.

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