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Columbia County strikes deal with state to clean up petroleum contamination on Chatham property

October 11, 2017 - 11:40 pm

CHATHAM — Columbia County will enter an agreement with the Office of the State Comptroller’s Oil Spill Fund to clean up petroleum contamination in soil on foreclosed property in the town of Chatham.

The Columbia County Board of Supervisors voted to enter an agreement with the state to pay for the cleanup of the contamination at 4322 State Route 203 in Chatham, to be supervised by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, offering 50 percent of the proceeds of resale of the property in exchange for the state Comptroller’s Office incurring all costs of the cleanup.

The Board of Supervisor’s Committee on County Government moved the resolution at its Sept. 27 meeting and it was brought to a vote at the full board meeting Wednesday, when it passed unanimously.

The property is classified as a family residence that was previously owned by Christina Wheeler, who died and passed the property on to Philip Wheeler, and now is on the county’s list of foreclosures.

Patrick Holloway, with the Oil Spill Fund, said the contamination was caused by a leaking tank on the property.

“It was a site the state wanted to get cleaned up,” Holloway said. “The cleanup will be done by state contractors.”

Holloway said he could not provide an estimate of how much the cleanup will cost or how long it will take.

The Comptroller’s Office agrees to settlements such as this to ensure properties get cleaned up so it can be resold at a higher price because liability is not passed along.

“Counties do not want to be held liable for the cleanup and it is tougher to sell the property if the state is cleaning it,” Holloway said. “So we keep it out of foreclosure until it is clean. It can be sold for more.”

In 2016 the Oil Spill Fund had $3,463 in liabilities and a total balance including investments of $100,883.

The property has an assessed full market value of $105,882, according to Columbia County property tax records.

“The DEC could make an argument that if the county has foreclosed on the property it is the county’s responsibility to clean the property,” said Columbia County Attorney Robert Fitzsimmons. “In this agreement we would release liability for the cleanup to the DEC. When we go through the foreclosure process, the DEC will receive a portion of the proceeds from the auctioning of the property.”

Fitzsimmons said he does not know how long the cleanup will take, but when the DEC gives the property a clean bill of health the county will list the foreclosed property and mark it for the auction block.

The county attorney said it has been a long time since the county has made an agreement like this.

“Some properties are so environmentally problematic, it is not worth it to put them back on the tax rolls,” Fitzsimmons said. “They are not economically feasible.”