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Dumping Ground

Toxic waste on your property could cost you-even if you didn't put it there.

This story appears in the January 1996 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Suppose you purchase a cozy old storefront on Main Street, remodel it and proudly open your new flower shop. Your business is just getting on its feet when patrons of the cafe next door start complaining that the water tastes funny. After poking around a bit, investigators discover the cause: contaminated soil radiating from your property. Further examination reveals that a dry cleaner who owned the property for 10 years routinely disposed of excess solvents by pouring them down the drain, which led to an underground leaching field. Restoring the land will be very expensive. But that isn't your problem, right?

Wrong. Under the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, better known as CERCLA (or the Superfund Law), property owners can be held responsible for the cost of cleaning up environmental contamination on their property-even if they had nothing to do with the pollution. Often state or federal agencies extract the cost of cleanup from the property owner who's easiest to find. Likely as not, that's the current owner, who then has to locate whoever's responsible and sue for compensation.

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