WHEN Susanne Carrillo sold her North Vancouver home in June, she wound up with a nightmarish parting gift - a $90,000 bill for remediating soil contaminated by a leaky oil tank she didn't even know she had.
Carrillo is now warning her former neighbours to find out if they have one of the thousands of "ticking time bombs," that remain buried under North Shore yards - and calling on the province to help out others who find themselves in her shoes.
Despite twice hiring contractors to search her property for a tank at the request of prospective buyers, it wasn't until her final home inspection that Carrillo and her partner learned about the corroded container, which had been leaking oil since a previous owner converted to natural gas in 1981.
In order to complete the sale, the unlucky homeowners were on the hook for the cost.
Since it was a lack of government foresight that allowed for leaky oil tanks, government should have a hand in mitigating the costs, Carrillo argues.
"They gave out permits for these oil tanks; they even allowed people to bury them, but they were never decommissioned properly. What did they do instead?. . . They just pointed the finger at the present owner and said: 'That person has to be responsible,'" said Carrillo. "It goes right back to the way this thing was managed. People say: 'Should it be the taxpayers paying for this? I say yes, absolutely. That's what taxes are for."
The only way to recoup any of the expense is to take previous owners to court, but that isn't a practical solution for most people, she said.
"If the oil tank didn't break your neck financially, the lawyers will," said Carrillo.
Ironically, her home was once featured on a CBC news segment in which she proudly showed off her pesticide-free, organic gardens, just above the toxic sludge.
In addition to chipping in for some of the clean up costs, Carrillo wants governments to investigate newer and cheaper remediation methods, and to put better regulations on the oil tank removal business.
But homeowners aren't powerless in the face of the problem, said West Coast Realty agent Robert Jennings, who frequently deals with West Vancouver clients who don't want the expense or trouble of removing the old tanks. The best way to avoid Carrillo's experience is to be proactive with tanks now, he said.
There are no local bylaws requiring the removal of tanks, but banks and insurance companies won't finance or insure a home until the seller can prove the soil is clean and that no tank exists on the property, he said.
The longer they are left in, the higher the risk that oil will leak, contaminate nearby soil, or run downhill to neighbouring properties or streams, which results in an immediate $25,000 fine from Fisheries and Oceans Canada, said Jennings.
Under provincial environmental law, any previous owner of the land (or real estate agent who facilitated the sale) can be named in a lawsuit, he said.
"Do we want this headache? I don't think so," said Jennings. "Let's just be done with it. Get the damned tank out."
According to the West Vancouver Fire and Rescue, there are still about 4,000 tanks buried in that community.
Those tempted to cheat and remove the tank quietly should be cautioned: Inspections must be carried about by certified engineers, and the fire department must sign off every permit in order to prove the job is done.
"Even if the tank has been removed by dark of night, there is a stop-gap," said West Vancouver division fire chief Martin Ernst. "If you think it costs a lot doing it up front, try going for the audit factor later. It always costs more later. If you want to sell your house, and you want the purchaser to be confident and the lender to be confident and the insurer to be confident, you (want to) do it the right way the first time."
The first step is contacting a certified engineer, which West Vancouver Fire and Rescue can facilitate for anyone on the North Shore, Ernst said.
The City of North Vancouver has a similar program, while the District of North Vancouver has a less stringent approach, allowing owners to self-report when their tanks have been removed. Neither community knows how many tanks are buried inside their boundaries, but the city estimates it could have as many as 1,500, and the district believes it could have thousands.
Naomi Yamamoto, MLA for North VancouverLonsdale, met with Carrillo to discuss the problem but, she said, there is no obvious solution.
"Realistically, the principle (that) the polluter pays isn't necessarily applicable for residential sites, when it could be several owners past," said Yamamoto. "Even if they are still alive, I believe they didn't do anything wrong. The standards have just changed."
Although Carrillo has since left the province, Yamamoto plans to pursue the matter with Ministry of Environment staff.
"I just want to make sure we're looking at all the options," she said.