Home Heating Oil Spills

oil delivery, oil tank, oil fill pipe

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Report any fuel oil spill, no matter how small, to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) Spill Hotline at (800) 457-7362. In the event of a fire or explosion, call 911.

More than two million homes in New York are heated by fuel oil. Each year, thousands of home heating oil spills occur throughout New York State. Common causes of these spills include overfilling a tank, equipment failure, poor condition of the oil tank, manifolded tank piping, leaky or ruptured gaskets, or having a fill pipe present but no tank connected.

In some cases, hundreds of gallons of oil can be pumped into the basement of a home. As little as a few gallons of spilled oil can destroy belongings, pose health risks, and cause environmental damage.


Oil spills can be difficult and costly to clean up depending on the size, location, and amount of oil spilled. Delays in reporting and cleaning can significantly raise the clean-up costs. In many cases, these costs may not be covered by homeowner’s insurance. Home heating oil spills can:

  • Contaminate drinking water wells, storm sewers, drainage ditches, surface water, groundwater, soil, and air. The impacts on groundwater and wells can take years to address and treatment systems are costly.
  • Cause odor problems in the home. Fuel oil odors can increase the risk for health effects, depending on the size, location, and extent of contamination from a spill.
  • Ruin septic systems. Septic systems impacted by fuel oil must also be cleaned up or replaced to prevent groundwater contamination.

Health Concerns

When an oil spill occurs at home, residents sometimes need to find another place to live until the clean-up is complete due to the strong odors and an increased risk for health effects.

Breathing heating oil odors can cause short-term symptoms like headaches, nausea, dizziness, shortness of breath, increased blood pressure, and irritate the eyes, nose, and throat. Skin contact with heating oil can also irritate the skin. These symptoms typically go away after you are no longer exposed to heating oil. Exposure to heating oil odors over a long period of time can increase the risk for serious health problems like liver and kidney damage, increased blood pressure, other blood problems, and cancer.

Talk to a health care provider if you have symptoms that don’t improve after you are no longer exposed to heating oil odors.

Maintain Your Oil Tank

The life of your oil tank depends how your tank is built, installed, and maintained. Inspecting your oil tank each year and fixing issues in a timely fashion can prevent leaks and spills, and protect property, public health, and the environment. Land and groundwater conditions also can impact the life of your oil tank. Inspect your fuel oil tank annually for signs of deterioration or damage and address any issues in a timely fashion.

  • Ask your oil delivery company if they offer a service and maintenance contract. Annual maintenance and a service plan can help prevent heating oil spills and protect you from being liable for an expensive spill clean-up.
  • For more information on performing regular tank maintenance checks review Maintaining Your Home Heating Oil Tank. Learn more from DEC about how to inspect your above-ground or underground storage tank.
  • Ask your fuel oil supplier about how to know when and how much fuel oil to order.
  • Consider switching to an alternative fuel such as natural gas, propane, or researching whether a heat pump might be an effective and efficient solution.
  • If you take your tank out of service, you will need to remove the tank and lines completely or fill the fill pipe with concrete. Follow DEC recommendations to test, replace, or remove an underground heating oil tank.

Above-ground Oil Tank

oil tank graphic

What to Do if There's a Spill

Reduce Odors

Odors are one of the most noticeable and immediate outcomes of a fuel oil spill. Take these steps to reduce odors and the risk for short-term health effects:

  • Use two fans to increase fresh air and ventilation. Place one fan in an open window or doorway to bring outdoor air into the living space. Put another fan in an open window or doorway to blow air out of the contaminated area to the outdoors. If you can, close the other doors and windows in your home. This will help channel the odors outdoors and not move them around your home.
  • If the spill is in the basement, close the door from the basement to the first floor. Use a plastic shower liner, plastic tablecloth, or plastic drop cloth to cover all cracks and gaps between the door, wall, and floor.
  • Turn off forced hot air heating or central air conditioning. Close or cover the air vents.

Use Protective Clothing and Equipment

If DEC says you can do the clean-up yourself, wear the following personal protective equipment (PPE):

  • Gloves (rubber, latex, or nitrile)
  • Long sleeved shirts and long pants
  • Boots
  • Goggles
  • Respiratory protection (such as an N95 mask, while sweeping up absorbent material)

Using the right PPE can reduce your exposure and protect your health. Wash yourself thoroughly and launder clothing when clean-up is complete. If you or a household member experiences health effects, stop cleaning and leave the area of the spill. Seek medical help if symptoms persist or worsen.

How to Prevent Fuel Oil Spills

Identify and Remove Abandoned Oil Fill Pipes

An abandoned fill pipe is the oil fill pipe previously used to connect an indoor heating oil storage tank to the outside of a home. An abandoned fill pipe should be physically removed or filled in with concrete as required by NYS Law and the Building Code. Cover any hole in the foundation with appropriate building materials (cement, wood).

Relocation Information

When there is a spill the New York State Department of Health, DEC, or local health department staff will determine if the household should temporarily move out of the home and will work to relocate you and your family. Article 12 Section 172 of the New York State Navigation Law requires that the party responsible for the oil spill pay for these relocation costs. The responsible party must also immediately notify their insurance company to determine if the oil spill is covered under their policy. If the responsible party or their insurance company are unable or unwilling to pay relocation expenses, New York State can use the Oil Spill Compensation Fund to reimburse the actual and necessary expenses until it is determined that you can move back into your home.

Check Before You Buy

If you purchase a home that has been heated by fuel oil, it’s important to think about how to prevent a heating oil spill and prioritize fuel oil safety. In cases when a home’s heating fuel source was switched from oil to another fuel such as natural gas, the tank could be removed, but the abandoned oil fill pipe may be left in place, putting you at risk of an oil spill.

  • Learn about the home’s heating system and identify any abandoned fuel oil fill pipes or oil tanks before you buy.
  • Look for fill valves in your yard or home, indoor or outdoor vent pipes, or small copper pipes in your home that appear to have been pinched closed to determine if an underground oil tank may be present.

Preventing Fuel Oil Spills

  • Maintain equipment. Inspect hoses and tanks for defects or wear and tear.
  • Train staff about safe delivery procedures and handling. Include training on how to spot maintenance issues, best practices to prevent misdelivery and overfilling tanks, basic spill response procedures, and what to do in an emergency. Make sure every delivery truck has a spill kit with items such as kitty litter, absorbent pads/booms and plastic sheeting.
  • Provide drivers with correct delivery information. Compile information such as the type of delivery (auto-fill or call-in), location of fill and vent pipe, and map of property showing locations. Keep this information up to date and train drivers to refer to it before each delivery.
  • Maintain an updated customer list. Make sure that the addresses and delivery information of current customers is correct and that customers who have requested termination of your services are removed from your delivery list. Many fuel oil spills result from fuel that is pumped into the basement with no tank to receive it in homes that have converted to propane or natural gas. These costly clean-ups may pose liability issues for delivery companies.
  • For health concerns or concerns about staying in the home, contact us at (518) 402-7800 or btsa@health.ny.gov.
  • Always notify your oil delivery company and insurance company of an oil spill.