Oil spills at home

A spill of diesel or kerosene from your oil tank can be dangerous for the water environment, human health and the environment. If there's an oil spill outdoors at home, you should ask an expert to inspect and clean up the spill.

Reasons an oil tank might leak

An oil tank can leak due to:

  • failure of the tank body
  • damage to equipment on the tank such as sight gauges
  • damage to or wear-and-tear of fuel feed lines
  • failure of components at the boiler end of the system, such as flexible hoses

Metal tanks can rust through, often at their bases. Plastic tanks can split due to inherent defect, age or wear-and-tear. Oil spills can happen when oil is delivered.

Who is responsible

Anyone who uses, stores, fills, transports or manufactures hazardous substances, such as oils,  is responsible for making sure the substance is contained and used in a way that won’t result in a release to the environment. They're also responsible for cleaning-up any spills and deal with any consequences of the release.

Whether you own or live in a property with a domestic oil tank, you should check you have adequate home insurance to cover assessment and clean-up of a spill, and any effects of the spill on the land or ground.

What to do if there's a spill or a leak

If you suspect an oil leak at your home, you should act quickly and contact your insurance company. Don’t put off taking action or assume the problem will go away. The quicker the leak can be dealt with, the less oil will be lost and further damage can be minimised. 

Your insurance company might appoint a specialist contractor. If your insurance doesn’t have enough cover, you should find a local contractor.

You can contact the UK and Ireland Spill Association or also use the International Spill Accreditation or also use the International Spill Accreditation Scheme (ISAS)  to find a local contractor.

Once you have appoint a contractor:

  • if there’s a strong smell of oil in your home, ventilate the area by opening windows and doors and contact the Environmental Health Department in the local council for advice
  • keep children and pets away from any spills
  • avoid getting oil on your skin and clothing
  • wash your hands and don’t smoke, eat or drink when or after you are in contact with the oil
  • switch off your oil supply at the tank
  • try to find out where the leak is coming from
  • immediately, try to stop it at the source - put a bucket under dripping oil to catch it (don’t use containers that will be used to store food for humans or animals)
  • prevent spilled oil from spreading and, in particular, prevent it from getting into drains and waterways - you can use absorbing material such as earth, sand, cat litter or commercial products
  • if there’s an ongoing leak from the tank, try to stem the flow - you may be able to use sealant to temporarily repair a metal tank; for plastic tanks, try rubbing a bar of soft soap into the split
  • try to work out how much oil has been lost; check the level on the tank and think about how much you use and when you last had a deliver
  • never use detergents or a hose to wash the spill away
  • store anything with oil on it, or soaked into it, in containers that don’t leak until it can be correctly and legally disposed of
  • if the oil has or could enter drains or the water environment (groundwater, ponds, burns, rivers, loughs, estuaries or coastal waters) you must contact the Northern Ireland Environment Agency immediately on their water pollution hotline
  • if it’s likely to affect a public water supply you must contact Northern Ireland Water on their Waterline number
  • if it’s likely to affect private water supplies you must contact your local council (ask for the Environmental Health Department)
  • if your water supply or pipework may have been affected, don’t drink the water
  • arrange for any remaining fuel in the tank to be removed by a fuel supplier -don’t do this yourself or store oil in a building, shed or vehicle
  • check with your insurer whether they or you should arrange for an engineer to repair or replace your tank or pipework 

Clean-up requirements

If the spill has contaminated the ground, the soil will need to be cleaned up along with any floating oil and any affected waterways. 

Clean-up works will generally only be carried out by specialist environmental contractors. If your building and contents policy permits, your insurance company will appoint a specialist contractor on your behalf.

However, if you don’t have enough insurance cover, you must appoint a specialist contactor. Unless your spill is a minor spill, don’t try to clean-up the oil yourself, given the potential health risks and the specialist nature of remediation and waste disposal.

You or your contractor will need to contact NIEA for advice on the safe disposal and/or treatment of contaminated soils or waters. 

Minor spills or major spills

To work out whether the spill is a minor or major one, you should check if:

  • there is a strong smell of oil indoors
  • the oil has spread from your land, under your house or down a drain
  • there are any ponds, loughs or drains, or private water supplies in the area

It's a minor spill if you can answer 'no' to all these questions and you're sure the spill is recent, small and limited to shallow soil. It's a major spill if you answer 'yes' to any of these questions or you aren't sure the spill was recent, small and limited to shallow soil.

Clearing up minor spills

You can clear up clearly confirmed minor spills yourself though you may prefer to use a contractor. You should:

  • check the soil, working out from the source of the spill to find where the oil now is
  • if the oil is limited to a few buckets of soil, dig up the oily and stained soil, remove the oil and dispose of the soil correctly
  • if the oil has spread to more than a few buckets of soil, follow the advice for a major spill instead
  • make a note of anything you've done to clear up the spill and take photos

Clearing up major spills

You shouldn't clear up major spills yourself. You should get a specialist contractor to do all the necessary investigations and do any clearing up and disposal.

Making sure it doesn't happen again

To help avoid an oil spill happening again, you should check your oil tank.

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