David Wallens
David Wallens Editorial Director
3/26/08 4:39 p.m.

The State Of Connecticut Is Punishing A 90 Year Old WWll Veteran For Doing The Right Thing.

“I suppose if I’d kept my mouth shut, none of this would have happened,” says John Fitch, referring to the oil contamination nightmare that has plagued him since he advised the state of Connecticut’s DEP five months ago that he suspected an old storage tank under his Litchfield County lawn might be leaking. But keeping mum when he suspects something is wrong simply isn’t this man’s style: John Fitch has devoted his life to “the greater good” for over half a century.

Forget that he is a decorated combat pilot who shot down one of Hitler’s dreaded Messerschmidt ME 262 jets. Forget that he was taken POW and received a Purple Heart. Forget that he is the inventor of the Fitch Inertial Barrier, those ubiquitous yellow sand-filled plastic barrels whose strategic placement on highways across America have saved countless thousands of lives. Forget that Connecticut Governor Jodi Rell herself declared April 21, 2006 “John Fitch Day” in honor of his contributions to highway safety. And forget that as a legendary racing car driver he is the very embodiment of a true hero, as his election to numerous Halls of Fame will testify. Forget all that, and just consider the facts of this case:

Last October, Fitch told the DEP that he suspected an oil leak. He also (at his own expense) hired a local environmental services company to test his well water. The results indicated a petroleum concentration of 1.5 milligrams per liter, but no-one told him if that constituted a problem. Instead, the DEP ordered him to test all the wells within 500 feet of the tanks, again at his own expense. In November, the DEP advised him that although none of the wells was contaminated, he would have to remove the tanks and excavate the surrounding soil … again at his own expense. After excavating more than 3,000 tons of dirt (some of which was, in fact, contaminated), work had to be suspended because the resultant pit had filled with rainwater. Meanwhile, the contaminated soil, which was deposited in 15-foot high piles around Fitch’s property, was subjected to the effects of run-off because of rain and snow, a hazard that the state - not Fitch - created. “And there’s no end in sight,” laments the 90 year old. “In theory they can make me drain the pit and continue excavating. What’s worse, they can force me to cart the soil off and pay for it to be treated.”

To put that into perspective, Fitch has received estimates of $70 per ton to have this done, and that doesn’t include the cost of the excavation itself, nor the cost of filling in the pit with clean soil. One expert has estimated that the total bill could easily top $350,000. In the meanwhile, The Town of Salisbury mailed the Fitches a notice advising them of an $80,000 reduction in the assessed value of their home, with the words “Oil Contamination” overwritten across the page. “I’m completely bewildered by this,” says Fitch. “In effect, they have condemned our family home, making it worthless.”

But perhaps the most ironic –and frustrating‑ fact about the situation is that the Connecticut DEP itself has no firm protocol for cases such as this. According to Fitch, Patrick F. Bowe, Director of the DEP’s Remedial Division, has advised the Fitches that it is up to them to work with a consultant to select the best alternatives, taking into consideration costs, permit requirements and potential risks to human health. “He is saying that either our consultant, whoever that may be, will know more about oil contamination remediation than the DEP does or, if the DEP knows more, it is not telling us!” says Fitch. And while all of this is going on, Fitch’s wife, Elizabeth, requires nursing home care at a cost of $10,000 a month.

Outraged by the State’s actions, John Fitch’s friends have banded together to provide some financial relief for the couple. Notably, the Vintage Sports Car Club of America has graciously offered to help with legal expenses, and this week a fund was established to help pay for the excavation and soil cleaning costs. Checks payable to “The Friends of Fitch Homestead Fund” may be sent to the Salisbury Bank and Trust Company, P.O. Box 1868, Lakeville, CT 06039.

For additional information and documentation, please see the contact information at the top of this release.

State of Connecticut personnel involved with the Fitch case include Director Patrick F. Bowe, Remediation Division, and Camille Fontanella, Connecticut Dept. of Environmental Protection, at 79 Elm Street, Hartford, CT 06106-5127, tel.(860)424-3074. Other interested parties are K. Foley, (413)734-3688; M. O’Handley, (425)806-4875; State Senator Andrew Roraback, (860)489-6880; and CT Governor Jodi Rell (860)528-7347.

Tim Baxter
Tim Baxter Online Editor
3/26/08 4:50 p.m.

Wow. What a mess. Some bureaucrats need a good smackdown.

Voted up. Hope everyone sees it.

KaptKaos None
3/26/08 10:49 p.m.

This is why we need a department of Knock it Off in every state to handle crap like this. Too sad.

3/28/08 10:27 p.m.

I must be missing something significant from this article. Here's what I understand...

1) Mr. Fitch owns a piece of property; 2) An underground fuel oil tank on that property is leaking; 3) The leak has contaminated the soil; 4) The State of Connecticut is requiring Mr. Fitch to fix the problem on HIS property at his own cost; and 5) Mr. Fitch hired a contractor to remove the tank and excavate his property and he's obviously had some serious problems with them.

My heart goes out to Mr. Fitch and I agree that his situation is unfortunate for myriad reasons. I even think it is a kind, thoughtful, wonderful suggestion to propose that we offer our assistance. But, why can't we just say, "a great man is in a really unfortunate situation and needs our help" rather than suggesting that the State of Connecticut is committing an act of injustice or "punishing an American Hero"?

The State is doing no such thing. Mr. Fitch is being treated just like every other property owner with an underground oil storage tank. They're requiring him to fix the environmental problems that his leaking oil tank has created on his property.

A little background might help, in Connecticut, all underground oil storage tanks had to be upgraded to meet new standards prior to the end of December 1998. Underground storage tanks that weren't upgraded had to be removed. I am assuming that Mr. Fitch's oil tank wasn't updated and obviously wasn't removed. Most underground oil storage tanks that predate these regulations today (and weren't updated) are old and failing. If memory serves correct, they only have a life expectancy of about 20yrs and most old homes never had them replaced. The DEP doesn't typically do excavation. The home owner hires a private contractor who is properly licensed to handle the soil removal of the failing tank and sanitation or removal of the contaminated soil. All of this is undoubtedly very expensive but the costs of removing and replacing tanks (and any related clean-up, if needed) have always borne by the unfortunate owners of the property.

The fact that so many things have gone awry around Mr. Fitch's remediation is saddening (and maybe even worth fighting over - I'll leave it to his attorneys to figure that out) but I don't see how most of his problems are being caused by the State.

Your article almost seems to suggest that because of his age and the fact that he's a decorated citizen and war veteran the State should treat him differently than the rest of us. Maybe, we, as good people just want to help other good people who are going through unfortunate circumstances. I applaud that. It doesn't mean the State needs to be demonized. If Mr. Fitch hadn't reported the problem now, then he (or his estate) would have been forced to deal with the problem when his house was sold (because a house inspection would have revealed that that the home had an underground tank that had to be removed) when the leak would presumably be worse (and perhaps even more costly to fix). Suggesting that the DEP should be handling the remediation process is like saying that the IRS should do our taxes. It's just not the way the world works.

No, I do not work for the State of Connecticut.

rconlon None
3/31/08 11:29 a.m.

Bioremediation can be used after the tank is removed. In essence, bacteria is added to the soil to eat the contamination. This bacteria will develop naturally but the process can be sped up.
As long as the contamination is not moving and the source is stopped, this will work. Test the soil to find where the contamination is so you can test it in the future as it cleans up until the site declared clean.

Cheers Ron

IanF None
3/31/08 8:03 p.m.

Situations like Mr Fitch's are all too common, regardless of state. The father of a friend of mine owns an old gas station and has been in this sort of stalemate for the past 20 years. Without going into too many boring details, the money that Fitch has spend is mere chump change... :whatthe:

Gary Card
Gary Card None
4/1/08 11:49 a.m.

It appears that Mr. Fitch's only indiscretion was reporting it in the first place. Publicizing his plight will serve to discourage others from doing the so-called "right" thing. True, we can't fault the state of Connecticut for trying to enforce the law, but what (in all practicality) constitutes a proper environmental cleanup? Does it really need to be that extensive?

Gary Card
Gary Card None
4/1/08 11:53 a.m.

... ans here's more on this debacle from John's local newspaper:

Gary Card
Gary Card None
4/1/08 11:54 a.m.

sorry ...


KaptKaos None
4/1/08 5:39 p.m.

I don't want to start a flame war, so I will keep is short and sweet. The state government of Connecticut is forcing the man into bankruptcy. He should have kept his mouth shut. When it gets to be to much for common folks to follow the law, then maybe its the law that is wrong. Just like our IRS code.

4/2/08 3:55 p.m.

Where do people come up with this stuff?

I don't know anything about Mr. Fitch's wealth, savings or financial position in life (and highly doubt you do either) but I can tell you that his five acre estate in Lakeville, CT is likely worth $1.5-$2M depending on size and condition.

If the cost of remediation is going to be a financial hardship, then he has a couple of options:

1) Sell the property, take a $200K hit (he's going to do it now or his estate/heirs will take the hit when the place is sold anyway), walk away with $1.2M and buy a nice small home on less property with an above ground oil tank.

Even if he'd "kept his mouth shut" as many have suggested, his estate/heirs would have been responsible for remediation (and, therefore, costs) upon sale of the property - or would have taken a similar hit in sales price. It's also possible that his oil delivery company would have spotted and reported the problem to the DEP.

2) Take out a 2nd mortgage / line of credit on the home to pay for the remediation. The loan can be settled when the house is eventually sold.

The fact is, Mr. Fitch isn't being penalized for being honest. He shot himself in the foot when he, an intelligent man, "inventor of the Fitch Inertial Barrier", chose to ignore the subterranean rotting oil tanks on his property for all of these years.

Had he dealt with the tanks as homeowners in CT were advised to do years ago, the removal costs would have been a fraction of today's fees.

Home ownership is a b*tch...and an expensive one at that. Sometimes good people make bad decisions that come back to bite them in the butt later. I truly feel bad for John and appreciate everyone's sympathy but he's simply not as innocent in this as some of you are portraying.

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