OXFORD — Two other schools in SAD 17 have oil tank bunker rooms similar to the one at Hebron Station School that failed to contain more than 1,900 gallons of oil spilled on Christmas Day, according to Superintendent Rick Colpitts.

A month after oil leaked out of the school basement tank shortly after midnight Dec. 25 as it was being filled by a driver from the C.N. Brown oil company, officials are attempting to clean up as much of the spill as they can now and ensure it does not happen again.

“Three schools have similar bunkers,” Colpitts said. “The assumption is the same architect, different locations.”

In addition to the 3,000-gallon oil tank at the Hebron Station School, the Paris Elementary School has a 10,000-gallon oil tank and Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School in Paris has two 10,000-gallon oil tanks. The high school is primarily heated by a wood chip furnace. Each school has its oil tanks in “bunker” rooms that were presumed secure, Colpitts said.

The Dec. 25 accident forced about 135 elementary school students to be relocated to the high school for more than a week. The gymnasium and well water still remain off limits to staff and students.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection said most of the oil from the spill leached into nearby wetlands over the past month.

The belief was that the oil tank bunkers were containment rooms, Colpitts said. As it turned out, the Hebron school oil tank room was not a sealed room but made of poured concrete, a porous material which allows liquids to escape. 

“We made some assumptions about them,” Colpitts said. The tank rooms were part of the overall building design approved by the Department of Education.

“DOE did not require internal tanks to be located in containment rooms,” Colpitts said Wednesday. “The district believed that the construction of the room would contain a spill.

Colpitts said school officials are not aware of any law requiring containment rooms in Maine schools.

Because the entry door is 3 feet off the ground, he said, “We made some assumptions.”

School officials are reviewing the two other oil tank rooms and others across the district to determine what precautions should be taken to prevent a similar problem.

Maintenance workers at the Hebron school asked C.N. Brown to fill the oil tank because the fuel gauge showed it was running low. An oil truck arrived Dec. 25 and pumped in about 160 gallons before a whistle that indicates there is space in the tank stopped blowing. Usually, Colpitts said, if the whistle stops, it means the tank is full. However, the fuel gauge continued to read empty so the driver decided to continue pumping.

Oil overflowed and sprayed out of several parts of the tank, covering the floor of the bunker under the school with about a foot of oil.

School officials were assured by C.N. Brown that someone would be back to pump it out immediately, but Colpitts said that never happened. The room emptied of oil within six hours and was found that way by school maintenance workers.

Facilities Manager David Marshall said the cause of the problem was a vacuum air leak in the tank gauge.

“It was a one-minute fix,” Marshall said. He replaced the affected piece of tubing.

Residents will be able to hear more information about the effects of the oil spill and cleanup at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 30, at the school. School and Department of Environmental Protection officials will provide an update on the situation.

DEP representatives, including Southern Maine Regional Office Director Jim Dusch, Response Services Director Peter Blanchard, responder Sheryl Bernard and spokesperson Jessamine Logan, are expected to be present along with Colpitts.

Colpitts has said C.N. Brown is paying for all cleanup costs, but that does not mean the district will not be liable for some of those costs in the future.

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