Posted on Mon, Feb. 23, 2004





Oil Fires Destroy Two New Jersey Homes after Company Mix-Ups

By Amy Klein, The Record, Hackensack, N.J. Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News


Feb. 23 - For Julio Mojica, it was the smell of oil that roused him from bed, he told police.

Five days later, it was the smoke alarm that woke Lydia Tababan -- that and her brother yelling, "Fire."

Two New Jersey homeowners suffered the same fate last month and ended up homeless. Both homes -- Mojica's in Hillside and Tababan's in New Milford -- had been converted from oil to gas heat. But, twice last month, different oil companies mistakenly pumped oil into pipes that had been left behind, depositing the slick mess onto basement floors.

"I just don't understand how this can happen," Tababan, 62, said after 12 gallons of oil were pumped into her basement and ignited by the gas heater. The Metro Fuel Oil Co. delivery was intended for a house around the corner, police said.

Although both deliveries were mix-ups, building officials and fuel organizations say that homeowners are often unaware that when they remove oil tanks, they must follow strict codes -- standards intended to prevent the situation that Mojica and Tababan encountered.

On Jan. 28, Ace Fuel Oil dumped 250 gallons of oil into a pipe at Mojica's house, but the pipe had no tank on the other end, said Larry Ditzel, Hillside's building inspector.

The pipe dropped behind a wall that had been built after the conversion to gas heat, and the oil seeped around the foundation and then soaked through the basement carpet, Ditzel said.

It turned out that a regular oil delivery was meant for a house two doors away on Yale Avenue, according to the police report.

"It was complete negligence on the part of the oil company," Ditzel said.

Still, he said, the oil tank was removed illegally. After the spill, Ditzel went back to his office to check whether the proper plumbing and electrical permits were filed. They weren't.

Those permits are what oil companies say will protect homeowners from future mistakes.

New Jersey is home to more than 250 oil companies that serve 20 percent of the state's residents, according to the Fuel Merchants Association of New Jersey.

And, each year, a few homes are wrecked by oil that is delivered to the wrong house, said Fred Mumford, a spokesman at the state Department of Environmental Protection, which is often called in to clean up the property.

In 1995, the state's Uniform Construction Code was revised to handle this exact situation. The code requires that fill and vent pipes for oil tanks be taken out when an oil tank is removed.

"Several accidents have occurred where fuel oil deliveries have been made to incorrect addresses where a fill pipe was left in place after the tank was removed," the code advised.

But still, the mix-ups happen.

Larry Strychnewicz, owner of Ace Fuel, which delivered to Mojica's house in Hillside, said that homeowners and contractors who remove oil tanks may cut corners by never getting the proper permits. When that happens, the property is not inspected by a building official who would notice a stray pipe, he said.

"It is the homeowner's responsibility to make sure a permit has been taken out," Strychnewicz said.

"I have a mailman and he delivers me mail everyday," he continued. "But sometimes I get other people's mail. It's wrong. But it's human error, and it's going to happen. If the right steps were followed this would never happen."

At Mojica's house, the lack of a permit, coupled with human error, created a mess. Although there was no fire, 30,000 pounds of soil from around and under the foundation had to be removed, Ditzel said.

The DEP still is cleaning up the site and has not decided whether the house can be lived in again, Ditzel said.

Until then, Mojica, 25, and his wife and children are living in a hotel that is being paid for by Ace Fuel's insurance company, Strychnewicz said. Ace Fuel, which has been in business for seven years, had never delivered oil to a house without a tank before, he said.

Now the insurance companies will work out who will pay for the mess -- just as at Tababan's house.

Tababan's basement had only a dozen gallons of oil, but that was enough to cause her furnace to burst into flames in the middle of the night on Jan. 23.

The fire filled her house of 18 years with soot and became so hot that it melted the basement water pipes, causing them to burst and flood the foundation. The heating and water systems were destroyed, Tababan said.

Tababan and the relatives she recently brought to the United States from the Philippines were forced to move in with relatives.

Metro Oil officials declined to comment.

"I don't know what I'm going to do," Tababan said. "I'm lucky I got out alive."

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2004, The Record, Hackensack, N.J. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News