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A Hummel Report Investigation

A Case of Contamination

Four years ago a Warwick businessman was poised to sell his mortgage-free property for $3 million to a developer and enjoy the retirement he'd been working toward for years. That is, until tests showed an adjacent gas station had contaminated his property, which scuttled the deal. This week Jim Hummel has the story of one man's fight to try and get his land cleaned up.

 

SCRIPT

For nearly three decades, Copperfield's Lounge was a fixture in Warwick - a neighborhood bar that drew customers from well beyond the neighborhood. But in 2006, after 29 years in business, owner Russ Yates had enough.

Yates:  ``I knew I had good value in my property - I added to it over the years, I bought a piece in the back from the state. and i knew the value was over $3 million and i owed nothing on it,  so i decided - hey - it's time to retire."

Yates had a developer signed on to pay $3 million for the nearly four acres of prime property at Hoxie Four Corners.  Part of the deal, though, required test wells to check the soil. After all, the bar was next door to a Hess gas station.

Yates: ``The wells down at Hess came up dirty as far as contamination, as far as MTBE for gas and oil.''

That scuttled the deal and started a years-long nightmare for a man who was relying on the property to fund his retirement.

By law Yates was required to notify the state Department of Environmental Management about the contamination, which he did. The state later determined that Hess, was in fact, responsible for the contamination. Yates admits now he was naive thinking that Hess would take  care of the problem on its own.

Yates: ``They're a billion dollar corporation, they step up and take care of it, do whatever they had to do to straighten me out, being that they harmed me and stopped my sale.''
And he thought the state of Rhode Island - once notified - would do something as well.
Yates: ``Ii didn't hear anything from the state for over a year.''

Hummel: ``Did that surprise you?''

Yates: ``Yeah. I would think in the next week or two somebody would call me  and tell me what I should expect, what I had to do what they had to do as far as following through on Hess.

But it sat on somebody's desk for a year and I never heard anything.''

The state is certainly aware of the situation - and has an extensive file at D.E.M's headquarters. Officials did not make themselves available for an on camera interview, but a spokeswoman said the state a year ago ordered the company to take corrective action and thus far it's spent about $50,000

But for what is unclear.

All the time the clock is ticking - Yates' business is closed and not generating any revenue - and he is on the verge of the city taking his property because he owes $68,000 in back taxes.

As for Hess?

Yates: ``They notified my lawyer don't call them anymore - I was bothering them.''
What bothers Yates is Hess's latest push for an LNG plant here in Fall River at Weaver's Cove. The company has assured the community it will be a good corporate partner in the project.

Yates: ``They want to put in this big plant over in Fall River - they haven't even stepped up to the plate and taken care of the responsibilities they have now. They have a responsibility to me to make me whole for what they've cost me.''

Hummel: ``We contacted a local spokesman for Hess in Providence last week to get the company's side of the story. Three days later he told us we needed to speak to a corporate spokesman in Manhattan. When we called that office Monday we were told he was travelling, so we emailed a series of questions for him to answer.''

But we did not hear back.

Yates, who hired an attorney, says his legal bill is growing as well.

Yates: ``He  wants more money because he wants to hire an environmental attorney on top of it because he figures Hess is going to bring in all these big guns. even though the state says `Yeah - Hess is at fault.' He figures they're going to do whatever they can to delay it or sidetrack it.  So he wants more money to get more people involved. And I'm like, `I've done  nothing all I've done is own a piece of property next to a gas station and my whole life is going upside down.'''

Hummel: ``Has anybody from Hess ever stepped forward and  said we acknowledge responsibility, we want to help you or at least have some  part in this?''

Yates: ``Never. Nothing.''

In Warwick, Jim Hummel, for The Hummel Report.

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