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

By Steven C. Bahls

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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

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

The legal concept involved here is called "joint andseveral liability." It means that any one of a number ofparties can be held legally responsible for the entire cost: theproperty owner at the time the contamination occurred, the partywho actually did the contaminating, the current owner, or even thelender that helped finance the business found responsible. Theconcept is convenient for government agencies looking for someoneto pick up the tab, but it can be a headache for business owners.More and more cases involving cleanup costs are piling up in thecourts.

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