State Environmental Conservation officers and an environmental cleanup company are at the scene of a significant oil spill on the Peconic Riverfront in downtown Riverhead.

They are working to contain and clean up a heating oil spill that occurred when someone cut copper lines attached to two oil tanks at 127 East Main Street, according to Riverhead Fire Marshal Craig Zitek. The building, one of Swezey’s Departments Stores’ locations and the site of the indoor farmers’ market last winter, has been vacant for many years. It is owned by Riverhead Enterprises.

“It appears that someone cut the copper in an attempt to scavenge it and in doing so caused the fuel oil that was in the tanks to leak out,” Zitek said.

Zitek said he was called by the DEC yesterday afternoon to look into reports they had gotten about oil in the parking lot. They didn’t have anyone who could get to the scene right away and they asked me to look at it. At first he thought it was a spill from a vehicle and town highway crews were called to clean it up.

2014_1122_oil_spill_1“But as we started to clean up, we realized there was more to it,” Zitek said. “The more we looked the more we found.”

The fire marshal called the DEC back and told them they had better send conservation officers to the scene to investigate.

There are two tanks and a boiler in the back of the building, Zitek said. The oil had likely been sitting in the tanks for quite some time, he said. The farmers market did not use the boiler last winter and operated without heat in the building because Zitek had determined that the boiler — which had been under water during Super Storm Sandy — was not usable.

“There’s no way to know how much oil was in those tanks,” Zitek said.

“When the lines were cut, the oil spilled out of the tanks and into a sump in the building and from there out to the storm drains in the parking lot.

“Fortunately, the storm drains no longer discharge into the river,” the fire marshal said. “They now discharge into leaching pool fields.”

Zitek said it was not yet determined when the spill occurred.

2014_1122_oil_spill_2“There were reports of an oil smell in the area after Monday’s heavy rains,” Zitek said.

“When we had all that rain, the storm drains filled with water. Since oil floats on top of water, it rose to the top and spilled out. When the water receded, the oil was left in puddles all over the parking lot,” Zitek said.

The parking lot has been closed off and workers are vacuuming out the oil and debris from the storm drains and spreading an absorbent substance on the pavement to soak up the spilled oil, he said.

Since the DEC officers were able to determine the source of the oil, the building owner is responsible for the cost of cleanup, Zitek said.

He said he was not sure how extensive the cleanup would be and whether the state will dig up the parking lot to determine whether or to what extent the soil beneath the paved surface had become contaminated by oil.

Neither the property owner nor the state DEC could be reached for comment today.

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.