A misunderstanding last winter led to 80 gallons of home heating oil being poured down a Baker City well rather than into the holding tank, but state officials say the oil, though it spread into the soil and groundwater, doesn't pose a significant health risk.
They are continuing to monitor groundwater and soil in the area for pollutants, and a contractor took soil samples from an adjoining property last week.
The most important factor, from a health standpoint, is that residents in the area who have wells use the water for irrigation but not for drinking, said Katie Robertson, a cleanup project manager at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality's (DEQ) Pendleton office.
The oil didn't affect the city's water system, which supplies drinking water to the entire neighborhood, Robertson said.
Drinking water comes from a covered reservoir on a hill at the southwest corner of town, more than a mile and a half from the spill site at Robert and Leslie Harrison's home at 3080 Second St.
Tests of soil and groundwater taken last May in the Harrisons' neighborhood, and a water sample taken from their well in October, contained diesel fuel at levels well above what's considered safe for drinking, Robertson said.
But according to DEQ, the concentrations of diesel in the samples taken last year "are below levels of concern" for water that's used for irrigation rather than drinking.
"Occasional contact with irrigation water likely poses a very low risk," DEQ wrote in a fact sheet related to the Baker City heating oil spill.
Vegetables and fruits don't retain diesel from irrigation water, according to DEQ. The agency does recommend people who use groundwater to irrigate their gardens rinse produce in city water before eating.
It's not clear how far the oil might have spread.
A well on Grandview Drive, one block east of Second Street toward the Powder River, was tested in late September. That water sample did not contain detectable levels of diesel, Robertson said.
The well belongs to Ginger and Pete Ellingson.
Ginger Ellingson said Tuesday that she appreciated DEQ's "prompt and thorough" response last year. Because the water sample from her well didn't show any contaminants, Ellingson said she has "no concerns at all" about continuing to use water from the well to irrigate landscaping in her backyard.
Ellingson said she uses city water to irrigate plants in her front yard.
Confusion over pipes
The incident happened on Jan. 27, 2011.
A new driver for Black Distributing Inc. in Baker City arrived at the Harrisons' home to fill their heating oil tank.
The driver began pumping the fuel into a 2-inch-diameter galvanized steel pipe in the backyard.
But it was the wrong pipe.
Instead of leading to an underground storage tank, this particular 2-inch pipe, which sticks out of the ground, led to the irrigation well on the property.
“Every underground fill pipe is a 2-inch pipe,” said Shannon Black, owner of Black Distributing. “And that’s what the well pipe was.”
Black declined to name the driver, who continues to work for the business.
“It was one of those things — he was a new driver and there was a miscommunication with the homeowner,” Black said. “We’ve all made mistakes.”
Robertson said that after looking at a photograph of the Harrisons' well pipe, she wasn't shocked that the driver pumped heating oil into it.
"It looks very much like the standard fill pipe for a fuel tank," she said. "I wouldn't have guessed that was a well pipe."
Black said the right pipe — the one connected to the heating oil tank — is housed under a plate on the Harrisons' back patio.
Heating fuel is delivered to tanks that typically hold about 500 gallons of heating fuel, Black added.
“We have two types of customers,” he said. “Some we keep full every month and others who call on their own.”
Usually a driver delivers 100 to 200 gallons at a time, he said.
Robert Harrison discovered the driver’s error and stopped the delivery after approximately 80 gallons of diesel was pumped into the well.
Once Black learned of the mistake, he immediately called Steve Ritch Environmental & Construction cleanup, a Baker City firm, and the Oregon Emergency Response System.
"They've been very proactive from the start," Robertson said of Black Distributing. "They never tried not to be the responsible party."
The well was pumped in an attempt to remove some of the heating oil, but because there was very little water in the well to block the oil (which has a lower density than water), most of the oil had already flowed out of the well casing and into the surrounding soil and groundwater, Robertson said.
Cleanup and testing
The cost of the cleanup, which Black estimates at about $20,000 to this point, is covered by the company’s insurance, he said.
The Harrisons have been Black Distributing customers for many years, and Robert Harrison, who is retired, even drove a delivery truck for the company for a few years, Black said.
“Having been around the business some, he might have a little more understanding,” he said. “Unfortunately, accidents happen.”
The Harrisons declined to comment.
Robertson said the Harrisons declined to allow a contractor to drill holes for soil samples on their property because they don't want to damage a shrub that they planted as a memorial to a loved one.
But last week soil samples were taken from the Harrisons' next-door neighbor.
Lab results from those samples should be ready within a couple weeks, Robertson said.
The Harrisons did allow DEQ to take water samples from their well in October.
The sample contained diesel at a concentration of 483 parts per billion (ppb), Robertson said — well above the 100 ppb threshold that's considered safe for drinking water.
Steve Ritch Environmental & Construction subcontracted Sprecher Group of Bend, a company that employs geologists, to oversee the soil and groundwater sampling last winter and spring.
Sprecher Group in turn hired a Tualatin firm to drill 10 test holes in the rights of way of Second Street and Grandview Drive. That work was done in May 2011.
Three of the test holes were 45 feet deep, and the other seven went down 40 feet.
Nine of the 10 groundwater samples contained diesel. Some were at concentrations above what's considered safe for drinking water, Robertson said.
In a report summarizing the company's findings, Terry Sprecher, senior geologist and owner of the Sprecher Group, wrote that he believes the source of the low concentrations of petroleum found in soil and groundwater samples throughout the neighborhood wasn't the 2011 spill, but "is more likely an indication of another source, or sources."
Robertson said it's plausible, given that many homes in the area use or have used home heating oil, that small amounts leaking from multiple tanks over years or decades have leached into the soil and groundwater.
Based on the test results, which showed much higher diesel concentrations at sample sites nearest the Harrisons' home, it's also likely that the 80 gallons pumped into the well pipe did not immediately spread far.
DEQ does not require home heating oil tanks to be registered, so the agency doesn't have statistics about how many are used in Baker City now, or in the past, Robertson said.
A complicating factor, she said, is that groundwater levels in Baker City – and in particular near the Powder River — can fluctuate widely, rising during the spring and summer when the river runs high to supply irrigation water to farms and ranchers, then dropping during fall and winter.
The groundwater level can affect how quickly, and in which direction, oil and other contaminants spread, Robertson said.
MORE INFORMATION: www.deq.state.or.us/lq/ecsi/ecsi.htm
Click on Site ID 5489