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Poisoned Property

Find out what toxic waste is lurking on your land before you buy--and avoid footing the bill to clean it up later.

This story appears in the March 2000 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Toxic waste, heavy metals, Super fund sites . . . these all have to do with old mines and abandoned factories, right? Not necessarily. When you buy property for your business, it's a sure bet that someone else owned it before you, and someone else before that. Maybe it was a dry cleaner who routinely poured used solvent down the drain and out into an underground leaching field. Maybe it was a farmer who disposed of almost--but not quite-- empty pesticide barrels by tossing them into the ravine. Maybe it was a skeet-shooting resort with lead shots peppering the ground and poisoning wild geese. When your property turns out to be contaminated, it's your legal responsibility to pay for the cleanup--even if your business had nothing to do with creating the problem.

That's because of the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, better known as CERCLA, or the Superfund law. This 20-year-old law holds property owners responsible for the cost of cleaning up environmental contamination found on their property. Typically, the state or federal agency discovering the problem seeks to recover the cost of cleanup from the party who's easiest to find: the current owner. Then it's up to that owner to track down whoever was responsible for the contamination and sue for compensation. (Given the thousands of convoluted Superfund lawsuits mired in the courts, it's obvious the ones "cleaning up" are the lawyers.)

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