LAWS COST PROPRIETORS THEIR LIVELIHOOD
DEC liens for fuel-tank-leak cleanup costs putting some out of business
By THOM RANDALL firstname.lastname@example.org
Up through the mid-1990s, the Hadley General Store was a place you could buy hunting gear, a dozen eggs and a pair of long underwear.
It was a place you could sit and chat with neighbors over a plate of bacon and eggs. Located at the crossroads of the small rural hamlet of Hadley, it was a place people stocked up on necessities and swapped fishing tips.
Today, the store sits shuttered and vacant, and the state is demanding that its owners pay nearly $200,000 for the cleanup of an underground Fuel leak that likely occurred before the current owners, Stephen and Kathleen LeClerc, bought the store.
The LeClercs say the lien against their property stems from a fuel leak they didn't cause or have knowledge of, and they say the state's action is threatening their family's future financial security.
"Right now, we're stuck," Stephen LeClerc said. "We can't afford to open the store, but we can't afford to let it go, because we're still paying on the mortgage. It's like we have no rights or protection under the law. The state just determines you're guilty without a trial."
The LeClercs' store is among at least a half-dozen general stores in the lower Adirondack region that have had liens filed against them by the state to cover the cost of cleaning up leaks from underground fuel tanks. Some store owners say they're losing their life Savings-because of the cleanups.
General stores in the hamlets of Johnsburg, Wevertown, Olmstedville and Starbuckville all have had fuel leaks that were cleaned up by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which then filed liens against the properties to cover the cleanup costs. The liens have been filed even if the current owners of the stores didn't cause the contamination.
The LeClercs bought the Hadley General Store in August 1994 for about $80,000 with hopes of developing a business they could someday pass on to their young son, Stephen Jr.
For the next several years, they eked out a living, gradually expanding the store's inventory and services.
"It was a good business and for years was a focal point of the community," Stephen LeClerc Sr. said. "But what started out as a pleasant experience has turned into a nightmare."
Several years ago, LeClerc discovered an odor of gasoline in the store basement and reported it to the DEC.
Soon after that, the agency launched an investigation, and LeClerc said he helped conduct an initial excavation, uncovering old fuel tanks he says the store's former owner had not told him about.
The LeClercs say they sold off inventory and store equipment and spent their savings to pay for digging up the property. Within a year or so, they say they ran out of money, and the DEC continued the cleanup process.
A gas tank that had not been used under the LeClerc's ownership was determined to be the one that leaked.
Excavators dug up soil to a depth of 16 feet around the building, removing 2,700 tons of material.
The LeClercs received two bills totaling about $198,000 for the cleanup work, and liens were filed against the property.
"With these liens against me, I don't know what the future holds," LeClerc said. "Can they take my house, and will we ever be able to pay for Stevie's college education!"
Couple loses store, home
Ethel Charron and her late husband, Armand, used to own and operate the Crossroads Store in the hamlet of Starbuckville in Chester.
For decades, it had been a renowned source for outdoor clothing, hunting and fishing gear, along with groceries and hardware.
But the discovery of underground fuel contamination on the property led to a cleanup effort that ended in the mid-1990s with liens worth about $550,000 filed by the state against the Charrons.
Chester Supervisor Frederick Monroe said the cleanup bills were trumped up and punitive. The bills profoundly distressed Armand Charron, who died from a heart attack a few years later, Monroe said.
"The situation drove Armand to the brink," he said. "The state's actions are forcing a lot of mom and pop operations out of business. Those environmental cleanup laws were written as a tool to force giant corporations to live up to their responsibility not to ruin the personal finances of innocent people."
Although Armand Charron reported the leak quickly and cooperated with authorities, his business was sold, and up to 15 people lost good jobs, Ethel Charron said Tuesday.
The proceeds for the sale were confiscated by the state to satisfy a lien that was later reduced to about $350,000, she said.
Then, the Charrons' family home was seized and sold to help satisfy the debt, she said. Land adjacent to the store is now on the market, and the proceeds will probably go to the state, she predicted.
The couple had intended to use their assets to help pay for their five grandchildren's college educations, but the state now has taken virtually everything, Ethel Charron said.
"There's no money now to put the grandchildren through college," she said. "It's a very sad situation."
New owners discover trouble
The owners of the Johnsburg Public Market are in a similar situation.
James and Leslie Slick bought the general store, a landmark in the hamlet of Johnsburg, in 1994. They didn't know the property came with a series of underground fuel tanks, Leslie Slick said Tuesday.
Just 14 days after the couple bought the store, the DEC started to dig up their property, although the store had no gas pumps at the time. Finding underground tanks and some contamination, the DEC launched a cleanup, and later demanded repayment of $191,000 in costs.
The cleanup led to a lien against the Slicks' home and business for $154,000.
The Slicks now are negotiating a reduced debt and a payment plan. Regardless of the terms, Leslie Slick said, it still will be very difficult to pay off the debt given that they earn about $1 an hour after the store's normal overhead is paid.
Johnsburg Supervisor William Thomas said the Johnsburg Market and other general stores in the region are vital to community life, but he said the state's cleanup and collection efforts are driving many of them out of business.
Although Johnsburg Market is still surviving, he said, Conway's General Store in Wevertown is closed, and a $143,000 environmental lien remains against the property.
"These little businesses are so important," Thomas said. "People living in hamlets, many of whom have no cars, can walk to the stores and get what they need. These general stores are an important part of the fabric of small-town life."
Upgrade leads to large bill
Darlene Duffy envisioned providing vital services to townspeople when she bought Sullivan's General Store in Olmstedville in 1989.
Within two years, she decided to upgrade her gas pumps and tanks to protect the environment and boost customer convenience at a cost of $55,000.
But that effort ended up with a discovery of abandoned underground tanks and contamination, leading to liens against her business totaling $300,000, she said.
"The state froze both my business and personal bank accounts, but I just was trying to do the right thing," Duffy said.
She now works as the postmaster in North Creek.
Just doing its job
The DEC says its actions against owners of small general stores are simply a matter of enforcing the law.
"In cleaning these petroleum spills up, the state is meeting its responsibility to protect public health and the environment," DEC spokeswoman Jennifer Post said. "Also, we seek to recover taxpayer dollars by getting the money from the responsible parties."
Responsible parties, she said, include the current owners of contaminated properties, whether or not the fuel leaks occurred under their ownership.
Some owners of contaminated property may be eligible for some financial relief for cleanup costs, she said, if reforms that Gov. George Pataki has proposed to the state Superfund laws are enacted.
Under the governor's proposal, property owners who can show they took reasonable steps to ensure their property wasn't contaminated before they bought it including conducting appropriate soil tests might see reductions in cleanup debts, Post said.
Under the legislation which was approved last month by the state Senate and is now before the Assembly each situation would be evaluated on a case-by-case situation, Post said.
"If an owner was not the polluter, was unaware of any spill and took appropriate steps to investigate environmental aspects before buying their business or residence, they might be eligible for liability relief," Post said.
But LeClerc and other store proprietors and local government officials said this week that small country store proprietors don't have the resources to conduct investigations and shouldn't have to bear the cost for cleaning up pollution they didn't cause.
"I did the honest thing, and now I'm being punished for it," Stephen LeClerc said.
"I'd like to know the state isn't going to take my home and that I can reopen my general store. I'd like to see this nightmare end."