UNDERHILL, Vt. — When retired homeowners Doug and Pat Richmond were told by their home fuel-oil dealer that their basement fuel tank was being “red tagged,” they went nearly apoplectic.
The term means the equipment didn’t pass the state’s environmental inspection requirements, and that all fuel deliveries to the home were being suspended until the problems were fixed. The estimated cost of repair: $2,500.
“No oil leaks were found, and none were even suspected,” Doug Richmond told True North. “My basement oil tank dates back to 1973 — sure, it shows a little rust, but it’s in a heated, protected space and it looked to me to have a long lifespan ahead of it. Now I am being told it has to be replaced.”
Patterson Fuels told the Richmonds numerous other things about their oil-burning system: The vent pipe has to be equal in size to the fill pipe, and the placement of the line in the foundation needed replacing, too.
With two-thirds of the tank still filled with heating oil, the Richmonds say they can keep warm until they get a new tank, now required by law. But they wonder about other Vermonters on a fixed income: What will they do and how will they pay for it?
“As Vermonters, we have other tedious ways to heat our home, and in our case we won’t have to take cold showers, or wash dishes in ice water. But that’s not the principle of it. We are being told, yet again, what to do by state government,” Doug Richmond said.
He said he called Gov. Phil Scott’s office in Montpelier to find out who was responsible for the red-tagging order.
“There’s a megaton of money all over the state changing hands over this — Gov. Scott’s office says former Gov. Shumlin signed off on this,” Richmond said. “[So they] spring on us now in 2019? If it became law in 2017, why am I finding about this now? It must have been one of those 500 bills the newbie progressive, global-warming legislators threw in the hopper.”
Richmond said he quickly got up to speed on the law, and now he wants to warn others so they don’t get caught with a “red tagging” surprise.
“Of course, it’s not illegal if the government wants, demands us, to replace our older fuel tanks,” he said. “I don’t know who sold this to the legislature and bureaucracy in the first place.”
He added that he doesn’t blame Patterson Fuels for doing their job, and he’s thankful the fuel dealer waited until spring to do the inspection and announce the cut-off of additional fuel.
“Many Vermonters get domestic hot water from an oil furnace. I wonder what happens to small businesses when they are red tagged?” he said.
But the Richmonds are clearly upset about the mandated expense inflicted on them.
To add salt to the wound of shelling out money for a new oil tank, Doug Richmond reported getting a surprise in the mail, too, that seemed not to be coincidental.
“On March 22, I received a fat envelope in the mail from the Vermont Forest Parks and Recreation people offering free money to help me convert to mechanized wood heat, pellets,” he said. “Seven sheets of sales literature, hand-addressed to me, with a personalized letter and with 75 cents postage (paid). The letter read: ‘I hope this finds you well … I noticed… that your oil tank had been red tagged so you are likely thinking about your next step.’
“Damn it, I knew this red tag stuff was a scam,” Richmond said of the letter.
The law should not come as a total surprise to Vermont residents. Red tagging was years in the making in Montpelier.
According to the Vermont Fuel Dealers Association website, “If a tank is unsafe to fill, it may be red tagged and placed out of service. Red tagging a tank will indicate that the tank is not in compliance and poses a risk of leaking or spilling. A fuel dealer is prohibited from filling a red-tagged tank. The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources maintains an online database of red-tagged tanks.”
According to Matt Cota, executive director of the Vermont Fuel Dealers Association, red tagging has been the law since 2017 and serves a useful purpose.
“The law makes sense and has proven to reduce the occurrence of spills in the past two years,” Cota told TNR. “If a tank isn’t safe to fill, it should not be filled. Period.”
Cota stressed that, to date, very few fuel-oil tanks have been ”red tagged’ in Vermont.
“Less than one-half of one percent of fuel tanks are being red tagged of the 125,000 heating oil tanks in Vermont. The rest are safe to fill,” he said.
According to Cota, Vermont fuel dealers are required to inspect a fuel-oil tank prior to the initial delivery of fuel to a new customer.
“Any problems identified during the inspection which indicate a significant risk of a spill must be corrected before the fuel is delivered,” he noted. “The owner of the oil tank is required to have the tank inspected at least once every three years by a certified tank inspector.”
Cota added that if a red-tagged consumer feels his or her fuel tank is safe to fill, and passes the five minimum safety criteria listed by the state, the individual can get a second opinion and have the red tag removed. Otherwise, heating oil dealers are prohibited by law from filling a tank.
According to law, a tank must be on a stable foundation and have a working vent alarm, such as a whistle. Both the fill pipe and the vent pipe must have a minimum diameter of 1-1.25 inches. Moreover, the fuel line between the tank and the burner, if below grade or buried in concrete, must be either plastic-coated copper or sleeved. The final requirement is that the oil tank must be free of leaks, pitting, rust, dents, cracks and corrosion.
By July 1, 2030, all tanks in Vermont — even those installed before 2017— are required to be on a solid concrete pad.
“Skid tanks cannot be located within 25 feet of a drinking water supply or within 25 feet of surface water,” Cota said. “If you don’t qualify for financial assistance from the state of Vermont, you may be eligible for a $250 rebate when replacing a non-compliant tank.”
To Doug Richmond, the code is just another example of the Vermont nanny state.
“Laws come from the gnomes in ‘Montpeculiar’ — there’s the one that if your car has a red (check engine) light on the dash, you may not drive it, regardless if it’s roadworthy and safe,” he said.
“Just junk your older car because you haven’t enough money just to get a red light turned off on the dash. If you haven’t enough money for that repair, just buy a newer car with the red light off. Well, there was instant outrage from Vermonters, and then the DMV backed off.”
Lou Varricchio is a freelance reporter for True North Reports. Send him news tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.