Joe Hurley opened the garage door of his home in East Bridgewater on August 21 and was struck in the face by the pungent smell of fuel oil. A thick red liquid covered the floor and soaked goods were stored in the garage.
A dime-sized hole had given way to the bottom of the nearby tank, releasing over 180 gallons of heating oil.
“I immediately evacuated everyone from the house,” said Hurley. “I was worried for the safety of my family.
Firefighters, environmental clean-up crews and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection arrived to contain the spill and assess the extent of the damage.
Joe Hurley did his best to navigate the mess while his father, Kevin Hurley, battled a serious case of COVID in intensive care. At home, her mother also recovered from COVID while suffering from stage 5 kidney failure and vision loss.
To save money, Joe Hurley and a relative hammered concrete in the garage and dug a hole so that crews could test the ground below to see how far the oil had spread.
However, with contaminated family possessions covered with plastic sheeting in the yard and large containers full of hazardous materials sitting in the aisle, the cost of cleaning is rapidly increasing.
You probably think a disaster like this would be covered by insurance. But that’s the problem: The Hurleys’ claim was turned down.
“I was heartbroken,” Joe Hurley said. “I mean, my dad is in the hospital with COVID. He worked very hard for this house. And to be told it was denied was unreal.
Kevin Hurley received the punch as he recovered in the hospital. And then he heard how much the price could go up. Friends started a GoFundMe page with all the financial uncertainty surrounding the cleanup.
“I was devastated,” he said. “I thought, ‘This is my retirement. “
It’s a nightmare Nicholas Stephens knows all too well. The retired Navy veteran’s oil tank seeped into the ground outside his Lake Hopkinton home in August 2020.
“Moments later, all hell broke loose,” Stephens said. “I had police cars. I had fire engines. I had people in white hazmat suits with buckets.
Soon after, crews dug trenches all over the property. They even lifted the house off its foundations to reach all the polluted soil.
The cleanup of the Stephens property was complicated due to the spill’s proximity to several water sources: Maspenock Lake, a neighbor’s private well and a nearby marsh.
Much like the Hurleys, Stephens found he was unprotected for damage. He hadn’t noticed the optional coverage on page 58 of his insurance policy.
“I realized this was a problem, but I didn’t realize the extent of it,” Stephens said.
A year later, several monitoring wells are still scattered around Stephens’ yard, but he hopes the brunt of the disaster is behind him. On a sheet of paper, he kept a handwritten statement of the huge expenses.
“It’s over half a million dollars,” Stephens said. “And it was all out of my pocket.”
NBC10 investigators first shed light on the financially devastating issue in 2019.
Katherine Hamelin, a widow from Sutton, endured the nightmarish scenario when she discovered a heating oil spill inside her house.
And Donna Baron, a mother of three in Blackstone, found she had to shoulder the costs of cleaning up an oil spill that happened years before she bought the house.
The DEP eventually stepped in to handle the required corrective action, admitting that he hadn’t kept track of the condition of the property for years before Barron bought it.
Massachusetts says more homeowners are protecting themselves from the devastating consequences of a heating oil spill.
State records show that there are on average about 120 heating oil spills per year in Massachusetts.
As all of the families we interviewed discovered, there is a relatively inexpensive homeowner insurance rider available that covers damage and cleanup costs. However, owners should know how to educate themselves about this.
As a result of our series of stories in 2019, there was a 14% increase in the number of owners who purchased the policies, an increase in DEP attributed to NBC10 coverage.
This means that around 48,000 households are now protected. However, this still only represents a fraction of the more than 700,000 Massachusetts households that use heating oil.
“You have to do the job and call the insurance company. And a lot of people, myself included, would even think about doing it, ”said Kevin Hurley.
Efforts are being made at Beacon Hill to make insurance coverage mandatory for all homeowners. A bill is expected to be heard shortly before the Joint Committee on Financial Services.
In the meantime, people who have lived through the nightmare of a heating oil spill are urging people to be proactive.
“I think that puts too many homeowners at risk of losing their savings,” Stephens said. “It happened to me, but I don’t want it to happen to you.”