04 Sep The Gas Tank Buried in Our Back Yard

Jill and I have a gas tank buried in our back yard. It’s been our secret for the ten years we’ve owned the house. Mind you, it’s not against the law to have a gas tank buried in your back yard. You could have ten gas tanks buried in your back yard if you wanted. Well, maybe not ten That is, I don’t know that you could go out tomorrow and bury ten gas tanks in your back yard. But, if the gas tank or tanks came with the house, you could have a hundred. Somebody else put them there. They have nothing to do with you. Except that they’re in your back yard. And, here’s the kicker: good luck selling your house.

Nobody’s going to buy your house if there’s a gas tank buried in the back yard. Jill and I aren’t selling our house. But someday we might. And so we’ve been thinking about that gas tank. Buried out there in the back yard. When we first bought the house, we marveled at the old gas pump in our garage. It’s actually more of a carriage house than a garage. It’s really big, with a twelve-foot ceiling. There used to be a sink and stove in there. There’s still an old work bench five inches thick, built in the days when you could get timber five inches thick. We figured the garage was built circa 1920, when the owners of this house decided to buy an automobile.

In those days, most of the roads—even here in the city—were dirt. And apparently gas stations were few and far between. So the owners of the house, the house that would some day be ours, installed a gas tank in the back yard. And a pump in the garage. The pump is really quaint and doesn’t look much different than a water pump. In fact, it operates the same way, except you don’t have to prime it. Because it pumps gasoline.

Some years ago I cut off the top of the fueling tube to the buried tank. To look at the yard, you’d never guess there was a gas tank down there. We didn’t know how big the tank was. It occurred to me that it might be as big as a hippopotamus and someday would collapse, especially if Jill and l replaced the gravel in our backyard with brick, which is the plan. Nicholas, a realtor friend, told us we’d have to divulge this “inherent defect” if we ever sold the house. Prospective buyers would want to know that there were no contaminants. They’d ask for paperwork. Certification. EPA clearance. The more he talked about it, the worse it sounded.

All I wanted to do was fill the tank with sand or gravel. Wouldn’t that be enough? I called my house-helper, Will, who’s recently out of rehab (we’re lighting candles for him) and, together, we dug down to the tank. It took the better part of a day. This was before the rains came. The dirt was like concrete. We hit the tank top about three feet down. I was surprised to discover that the tank top is no bigger across than an oil drum. But it’s four feet deep. So, it is about the size of water heater, dropped vertically into the yard. It holds 100-150 gallons.

I figured it’d take another two days to dig it out, tearing up a third of the yard in the process. Was this really necessary? Why not fill the tank with crushed rock and be done with it? I didn’t imagine anything was still in the tank but, just to be sure, I tried the pump in the garage. It took a while. I was startled and dismayed when gas spewed out and kept coming. I filled a five gallon bucket. Will and Jill said it was probably mostly water. I said, “It doesn’t smell like water.” I poured some into another bucket, then threw in a match. The bucket ignited like, well, gasoline. It burned big and long. Fifty-year-old gas.

So now we had a problem: I had to cut open the tank. But I couldn’t cut open the tank without creating sparks. A friend of a friend said he knew somebody who knew all about tanks. I called the tank expert. He agreed to come over and have a look. A big, silver-haired man, he’s a retired Baltimore city school teacher. “That’s a gas tank?” he asked doubtfully. “I don’t do gas tanks.” In an old city like this, there are thousands of aged oil tanks—once used to feed furnaces–sitting in back yards. Hauling them off keeps him busy. “You can’t get rid of gas,” he told me. “Nobody will take it.”

Although he couldn’t remove my gas tank, he did tell me the secret he learned from old gas tank experts: use dry ice to neutralize the gas fumes. I thanked him and told him to check the city paper over the next week to see if I’d blown myself up. The next day I brought home a ten pound bag of dry ice and poured it into the fueling tube. Then I stood back. A fog of white fumes geysered from the fueling tube—I could hear the ice hissing. I pictured a mongoose going after a cobra. OMG.

When the fumes cleared, I drilled into the tank top, inserted my saw blades and began cutting. Very carefully. Jill watched from the porch. I was thinking: if I’m going to blow up, I want to blow up big, don’t give me a blown off arm or leg—it’s got to be all or nothing. I unrolled the garden hose and kept a trickle on my saw blade. After a while, as I kept cutting and not blowing up, I got more brazen. This is what happens to people in high risk jobs. After a while, if nothing happens to you as you’re, say, welding girders fifty stories up, you get fatalistic about it. Tired too. I’m sure plenty of construction workers have blown themselves up thinking, This isn’t so bad. I’m almost done.

Two hours and eleven saw blades later, I had the top off. Our realtor friend gave us the number of an EPA-approved tank removal expert. He came out and said he’d fill the tank with sand, have an inspector certify that it was okay, then give us the paperwork to show that we had done the right thing. No need to take the tank out, he said. The rules don’t apply to tanks this small. We feel good for having decided to do the right thing, never mind that we could have done all of this ourselves. Certification will cost $1600. And still there will be a gas tank buried in our back yard. The good news is that we don’t have to remove the gas pump from the garage. We like the thought of that old pump lasting another hundred years, a reminder of how simple the world once seemed when people could willy-nilly plant something as outlandish as a gas tank amid the rose bushes in their back yard.