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Tainted law costly to Ogdensburg octogenarians

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Laurel B. Roethel was my age in 1984 when she bought a piece of commercial property in Ogdensburg. She was 60 or so a few years later when she found out the land was contaminated during its former life as a gas station and auto parts store. Now she is 85 and the government says she owes more than $100,000 to pay her share of the cleanup.

Mrs. Roethel’s retirement plan hit an oil slick because of a messed-up law.

Few people plan their golden years around paying for someone else’s sins, but that is the prospect facing Mrs. Roethel - thanks to the state attorney general charged with enforcing the bad law.

The law says land owners are responsible for cleaning up contamination found on their property. Period. It doesn’t matter if you put the contamination there or if it was there long before you arrived. If you bought the contamination, you own it. And you have to pay to clean it up.

The law put Cheryl and Larry Miller out of business when they were forced to pay for the cleanup of tainted soil found under the store they bought in Madrid. They opened Miller’s Market in 1982. The contamination was found 10 years later. The couple were adamant that they didn’t cause the problem. The law said it didn’t matter.

They tried to make a go of it after getting the $494,000 cleanup bill. They failed. The store was shuttered sometime after they started paying the bill in 2000.

You can fight the law, but the law wins.

Mrs. Roethel and her two neighbors who own part of the contaminated tract in Ogdensburg - Donald H. Forsythe, 85, and Frederick S. Wilder, 86 – found this out the hard way. They hired attorneys and all that really bought them was time. After several years of fighting, they ultimately agreed to settle the case for roughly $60,000 less than the original cleanup cost of $374,154.

What a deal. A raw deal when you consider the likely source of the contamination when the property was a gas station – Chevron USA – settled for $15,000 without having to admit causing the problem. And the corporation only had to cough up that small amount because of a lawsuit brought by Mr. Forsythe and Mr. Wilder, not the state.

If I am understanding everything correctly – and I will admit I might have missed something while trying to sort out more than a decade of legal paperwork – the state didn’t pursue the likely cause of the pollution because they couldn’t prove a gas station might have leaked gas some 30 years ago. Really?

I suppose it does make enforcement of laws easier when all the investigating you have to do is check to see who holds deed to the contaminated property.

I am all for laws. I am especially fond of those that guide folks not to kill each other or break into someone else’s house. But this law that holds property owners responsible for cleaning up someone else’s mess is just wrong.

Mr. Forsythe, Mr. Wilder and Mrs. Roethel all bought their properties probably with dreams of a comfortable retirement not too far down the road. Now they are octogenarians forced to take mortgages on their properties and live on Social Security and perhaps welfare assistance.

So much for dreams. Their golden years have been tainted by a bad law and someone else’s oil spilled decades ago.

Note: A petition drive to help Mrs. Roethel has been started on Facebook. To learn more about it, go to: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Justice-for-Roethel-in-Chevron-Oil-Cleanup/220957541353024

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