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Elderly Ogdensburg woman fined $107,500 for Chevron spill

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OGDENSBURG — It was a case of buyer beware.

When Laurel B. Roethel and her late husband, Thomas G., bought their commercial property at 1801 Ford St. in 1984, they had no idea that the site might be contaminated, said her daughter, Laurel Lee Roethel. Nearly 30 years later, Mrs. Roethel, under pressure from the state, is being saddled with a bill for more than $100,000 to clean up a mess her daughter says her family didn’t make.

In April 1988, two neighboring landowners, Donald H. Forsythe and Frederick S. Wilder, found oil on their property believed to have been left by a former Chevron gas station and an auto parts store on the site. Mr. Forsythe and Mr. Wilder were business partners dealing in real estate and insurance.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation cleaned up the property using $374,153.90 from the state’s oil spill fund.

In 2006, the state Attorney General’s Office sued Mrs. Roethel, Mr. Forsythe and Mr. Wilder to recover the cost of the cleanup, alleging that they were responsible for the contamination. After arguing the case for six years, Mr. Forsythe and Mr. Wilder have settled with the state, and the state is now pressuring Mrs. Roethel to follow suit.

On Friday, Mrs. Roethel signed a settlement that admits responsibility for the spill on her property, though she did not own it when the contamination occurred. The Roethels bought their property intending to operate a Kawasaki dealership, but it never opened.

Mrs. Roethel did not want to sign the confession, said her daughter, but her attorney told her that she might be arrested for contempt if she refused.

“I don’t believe it myself. I just never would have thought it,” Laurel Lee Roethel said. “If I don’t get my mom to sign this paperwork today and send it in, she could be in contempt.”

Her daughter said Mrs. Roethel, who is 85, is in poor health. She believes she has done no wrong.

“She may be elderly and she may be forgetful, but she knows right from wrong,” said Ms. Roethel. “This is wrong. The worst part is that the paperwork said ‘confession,’ and that makes her sick. She has nothing to confess to.”

Under the language of the 1974 state Navigation Law, property owners can be held responsible for covering the cost of oil spills that occur on their property, even if they did not cause the initial contamination.

Mrs. Roethel’s daughter said the law is an injustice.

“They go after the ones they really think they can get money from, the small people,” she said. “The big companies have lawyers on retainers so they can keep it tied up in court for years, so we look like we’re easy marks.”

In a settlement, Chevron USA Inc. was fined $15,000 and made no admission of liability.

Case law states that defendants cannot dispute the charges for the cleanup, another aspect to the issue that does not sit well with the family.

“When I got copies of the bills, because I asked for how much and how they arrived at that figure, there was a bill for a bar tab at the Gran View for the people who worked on the spill,” Ms. Roethel said. “There was a bill for the fill at $400 a load when local people only charged $40 a load.”

Jennifer L. Givner, press secretary for Attorney General Eric T. Schiederman, said her office did not intend to charge Mrs. Roethel with contempt if she did not sign.

“We’ve been engaged with negotiations from Mrs. Roethel for quite some time and we’re committed to creating a flexible repayment schedule,” she said.

Mr. Forsythe, also 85, said he didn’t want to admit responsibility, but could not justify continuing to fight the case.

“I’m 85, my partner is 86 and we decided at long last to settle it,” he said. “It cost us over $70,000 in legal fees.”

In order to cover his share of the $101,250 settlement, Mr. Forsyth had to mortgage his house, which he said was not a simple task at his age.

“I had to take a mortgage out on my house and I was happy to get it,” he said. “I figured what we have in Social Security, we’d just make the payments the best we can and the worst we can do is go on welfare.”

Ms. Roethel says her mother lives on a fixed income and cannot afford to pay the $107,500 settlement. As a result, the family is tapping into their savings and retirement to come up with the funds.

“It is very easy to say go ahead and settle if you have a full bank account, but if you don’t, what can you do?” she said.

In order to make the first $20,000 payment due to the state Comptroller’s Office next week, Ms. Roethel is withdrawing the money from her retirement account.

In order to pay the remaining $87,500 due in the settlement, the state has recommended the family sell or mortgage the property — but the Roethels say that would be difficult since the parcel has not been certified as clean.

“There isn’t a bank in the country who is going to give us a loan on this piece of property,” said Ms. Roethel. “Even after the cleanup is completed, you still don’t get a clean bill of health.”

The Attorney General’s Office has been aggressive in pursuing the case, said Ms. Roethel.

“They have tormented these people for the last 12 years. I would like to see this end before the end of their lives,” she said. “It is not like they are going to have better parts of their lives. If we put them through this, it would be called elder abuse.”

Mr. Forsythe said the state should treat veterans, like himself, better.

“It is a pretty rough way to treat a couple of old fellows like us,” he said. “I am a veteran of World War II. My partner is a wounded veteran with a Purple Heart. We were a part of that Greatest Generation that Tom Brokaw wrote about. People need to see how their government operates.”

Ms. Roethel says she would have preferred arguing the case in court.

“They haven’t gone to court yet. They are doing this before going to court,” she said. “I would like to see this go before a jury. What kind of jury would let the state do this to people?”

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