Ernie Brown says some days it seems that if it weren't for bad luck, he wouldn't wouldn't have any luck at all.
Brown, a Montwell rancher who is suffering financially from the past few years of drought along with low cattle prices, now fears he may be stuck with the cleanup costs for the removal of toxic soil discovered at the former Husky Station on U.S. 40 that he purchased in 1983, unaware the problem existed.Justice Construction, hired by the State Department of Environmental Response and Remediation, spent last month at the site digging with backhoes to remove soil contaminated years ago by petroleum from leaking underground storage tanks.
The area has been fenced off to accommodate the excavation work, and crews have dug an estimated 11 to 12 feet down to remove all the contaminated dirt on the property.
Brown claims the department didn't notify him of its plans to begin the cleanup process and fears that if he's stuck with the bill he'll be ruined financially.
"They didn't even notify me when they came out. That thing's gonna bankrupt me. They sent me a letter to sign saying I'd assume all liability. Well, I didn't sign it," Brown said.
When Brown bought the property 11 years ago he operated it as a gas station until about three years ago, when state regulations mandated that underground petroleum storage tanks no longer in use at the site be removed. Brown complied, but instead of finding three storage tanks, as the previous owners listed on the property, he dug up five tanks.
He claims he spent $30,000 of his own money to pull the tanks and estimates he's lost $300,000 in business over the last three years because he has been unable to use the property or sell it. He said he had a chance to sell the lot to McDonald's, but the state refused to release it because of the underground gas spill.
"The problems were there when I bought it. I was so ignorant about it. I didn't know all this stuff was coming down. As far as I'm concerned I can't stand to clean up any more.
"I planned to open a drive-up convenience store with a gas station, and I did until the state got on me. They say I can go back to the people who own it. But I'm the only one who responded. I figure from the time I shut down and cleaned up I figure I've paid my dues," Brown stated.
Dale Urban, Environmental Response and Remediation project manager, said because Brown's property has been designated as a Leaking Underground Storage Tank site, funds are available to cover cleanup costs in the event the operator is either unable or unwilling to finance the project.
However, should Brown attempt to sell the property the state can claim some of the proceeds to offset their cleanup costs. "I would imagine that the most basic mechanism might be a lien against the land, so if it's ever sold the state will get some of their money back," he said.
He also said that although the burden of fault falls on the current owner, Brown can go back to the former owners to recoup some of the costs.
Urban said the excavation work now being done is part of the department's plan to clean up the underground contamination. It con-sists of removing all contaminated soil and disposing of it, then bringing in clean fill and recovering the site.
The extent of the contamination was first discovered in 1993 through soil and water samples drawn from several groundwater monitoring wells both on site and near the property.