Oil estimate fuels dispute at North Stonington selectmen's meeting

Editor's note: This corrects an earlier version of this article.

North Stonington - An apparent misunderstanding over unused fire department heating oil and its disposal sparked a heated debate at the Board of Selectmen's meeting Tuesday night.

Though the North Stonington Volunteer Fire Co. made the switch from oil to natural gas several years ago, one tank containing a little more than 400 gallons remained as of last month. An estimate dated July 2011 shows that Richard E. White & Sons bid $1,500 to remove and dispose of an underground fuel oil storage tank for the fire department.

After Stephen Holliday, the town's highway foreman and public works director, told the selectmen he had removed the oil himself and transported it to his home, Selectman Bob Testa raised questions over whether the oil removal was handled appropriately.

Holliday did not attend the meeting Tuesday night. But Testa and First Selectman Nicholas Mullane argued at length over the ownership and potential hazards of the oil, with Testa contending that the town should have overseen the project and Mullane responding that it was a matter between the fire company and a private contractor of which he had little knowledge.

"It's our oil and we've done nothing," Testa said.

Even if the oil is unusable - as Mullane said Holliday described it - it is the town's responsibility to verify, Testa said. He called the lack of accounting for the oil on the town government level "lackadaisical" and said it remains unclear who authorized Holliday to remove it.

Testa also questioned whether the state of the oil called for hazardous material precautions. Mullane said that since he became aware of the oil removal arrangements, he has spoken with various state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and Department of Transportation officials, none of whom found any violations, he said.

"You have painted that picture and you have falsely accused the contractor, (Holliday), and the fire company," Mullane told Testa. "Are we impugning the character of people who aren't even here to defend themselves?"

Testa maintained that he is trying to account for "the taxpayers' oil."

Selectman Mark Donahue suggested tabling the discussion until Holliday and fire company representatives could attend a Board of Selectmen meeting.

"Let's establish what happened first and then let's see where it leads us," Donahue said.

Reached by phone Wednesday, Holliday said he worked for Richard E. White & Sons before taking his positions with the town and still does occasional part-time work for the company.

The oil belongs to White now, Holliday said, and he plans to continue storing it at his home until White returns from Florida in the spring.

Bob Shabunia, president of the fire company, offered no comment except to say the issues would be resolved at a future Board of Selectmen meeting.

a.isaacs@theday.com

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