Property Rights Foundation of America®
Founded 1994

reprinted from New York Property Rights Clearinghouse, (PRFA Vol. 6, No. 2 - Summer 2002)

Where have all the general stores gone?

DEC Hits Small Businesses for Cleanup of Old Fuel Tank Leaks

Innocent Owners Driven Out of Business

By Carol W. LaGrasse

Hadley General Store proprietor Stephen Leclerc did everything right. When he detected a slight smell of gasoline in the sump pump in the basement eighteen months after he bought the store, he reacted as a good citizen. He called the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) within 24 hours.

Now his thriving little store at the four corners of this little town at the southeast edge of the Adirondacks is out of business and the family is bankrupt. They have spent everything in the store's account, their personal accounts, savings, stocks, retirement, life insurance, and the savings for their son's education, according to a letter that Stephen and his wife Kathleen sent to Governor George Pataki in July 2001. They pled with the Governor to help them with nearly $200,000 in DEC liens on their property for fuel leakage costs, but, even after they sent a follow-up letter this May, they received no reply.
Hadley General Store, boarded up after DEC cleanup costs forced the owner out of business.
Photo by Peter J. LaGrasse

Even though the family is innocent, DEC and the State Attorney General's office have held the Leclercs responsible for the cost of the cleanup of fuel tank leaks dating from before they owned the property.

When the couple bought the property, the previous owner had told them in the contract that there were two buried gasoline tanks, the one currently in use and another with a broken pump, Stephen wrote the Governor. When DEC and Precision Environmental Services investigated, the family discovered that there were seven buried tanks instead of two. All had leaked except the one that the Leclercs had kept in service. The other five tanks had their fill pipes cut off and buried.

The cleanup became extremely expensive. After the family exhausted its resources and went bankrupt, the State put a lien on the property. The Leclercs tried to keep on, but finally had to give up operating the store. It sits vacant for three years. While keeping up with $3,000 yearly in property taxes on the store, the Leclercs are still paying off a mortgage on the purchase price of $80,000.

The State claims that it is just doing its job, enforcing the law and protecting the environment, according to reports. The point is apparently lost on the State that the Leclercs are innocent. The inexplicably high cost of the cleanup under DEC's direction is apparently not an issue to the State. The fact that the once-attractive Mom and Pop retail establishment, an important community center for the town of Hadley, sits with the windows boarded up seems to be meaningless to the State. Recently Stephen Leclerc pointed out even a person charged with murder is afforded the opportunity for a trial, but he was not.

"The LeClerc's store is among at least a half-dozen general stores in the lower Adirondack region that have liens filed against them by the state to cover the cost of cleaning up leaks from underground fuel tanks," according to the Glens Falls Post Star. "Some store owners say they're losing their life savings because of the cleanups."

In a major front-page story on August 1, journalist Thom Randall pointed out, "General stores in the hamlets of Johnsburg, Wevertown, Olmstedville and Starbuckville all had fuel leaks that were cleaned up by the state Department of Environmental Conservation." State liens were filed against the properties to cover the cleanup costs "even if the current owners of the stores didn't cause the contamination," he reported.

The newspaper described the fate of the Crossroads store in Starbuckville in the town of Chester. Ethel Charron and her late husband Armand used to own it, but the state filed $550,000 in cleanup liens against them. The Post Star reported that Chester Supervisor Frederick Monroe said that the cleanup bills were pumped up and punitive. Armand Charron was driven to the brink and died from a heart attack a few years later, Mr. Monroe told the newspaper. Ethel Charron told the reporter that up to fifteen people lost their jobs when the store closed.

Other nearby general stores closed, also, as a result of the State's imposition of fuel cleanup liens, according to the Post Star article and people in the region who commented after the article appeared.

The loss of these general stores as a result of the unjust cleanup costs imposed by DEC is tearing at the fabric of upstate communities. Often the only store in town, the general store is a hub of the community. In addition to shopping for everything from groceries to fishing supplies, people start the morning in these stores over a cup of coffee and continue to gather during the day to keep in touch with all the local happenings. By causing vacant general stores in the center of small hamlets, DEC is inflicting blight on these struggling towns.

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