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A Hummel Report Investigation

The State's Response

Earlier this spring we brought you the story of one businessman's struggle to have his contaminated property cleaned up - contamination that came in part from a gas station next to his land. This week Jim Hummel speaks with the state agency overseeing the case to find out why it has stretched over so many years - and discovers it's another example of government having to do a lot more with a lot less these days.

 

SCRIPT

Hummel  ``We told you in April about Russell Yates's struggle to have his contaminated property here in Warwick cleaned up. This week we hear from the state official overseeing the situation and  learn why government these days often responds not in days and week, but months and years.''

After 29 years in business,  Russell Yates in 2006 decided to retire and sell his business Copperfield's Lounge - and the four acres of land that went with it - to a private developer for $3 million. But test wells sunk by the developer showed contamination,  later determined by the state to have come from the adjacent Hess gas station.

In an interview with The Hummel Report earlier this year Yates blasted both Hess - for not stepping in an taking responsibility and cleaning his property - and the state for not moving more quickly in the process. Hess has not responded to repeated requests by the Hummel Report for comment, but we did sit down with D.E.M. for the state's perspective.

``The most difficulty is when you're on tight timelines with property transfers. It's extremely difficult. We do the best we can.''

Leo Hellested heads DEM's waste management division that ultimately oversees Yates' case...and hundreds of others.

Hellested: ``We've got 270-odd cases just relative to tanks we deal with in the program. This office also deals with all of the Superfund cleanups throughout the state. We also deal with the Navy properties down in Newport.''

Yates wanted to know why it took nearly a year for DEM to respond after he notified them - as he was required to do by law - of the contamination. The developer who wanted to buy the property did an extensive engineering study, which Yates passed along to DEM.

Hellested: ``The bureaucrat's got to pick it up, look through it, digest  it, and concur with what his consultant's trying to say and to do that on a timeline that works is extremely difficult.''

Hummel: ``It's probably safe to say you don't have as many people as you used to either?
Hellested: ``Absolutely, we're down a third, easily a third of the staff.''

Hummel: ``So that's the realities of state government these days also?''

Hellested: ``It is.''

Hellested said Hess is not Yates's only concern. His bar also border a dry cleaner and some of the property there is contaminated. Although Yates says the  dry cleaner is responsible for the contamination, the state says it is less clear cut. And trying to wade through that has taken additional time.

The state has a fund to help clean up leaking underground storage tanks, but legislators cut the funding from a penny a gallon tax to half a penny. In addition lawmakers have kept millions of dollars over the past four years, as the budget crisis has worsened, to pay the state's bills - meaning less money is available for cleanups.

Hess, meanwhile, agreed to a formal action plan with the state a year ago.
Hummel: ``Did the corrective action plan give any timetable?''

Hellested: ``No.''

Hummel: ``Does it ever?''

Hellested: ``It's based on the results. If this takes a long time to naturally attenuate, they continue to monitor, they continue to spend money. They continue to work until it's done.''

Hummel: ``It's actually in Hess's interests if it continues to dissipate and is meeting your results. Time is on their side, is that correct?''

Hellested: ``Yep.''

And that leaves Russell Yates in continued limbo...

Hellested: ``I feel for the guy, as I would feel for anybody who has property impacted....it's not a situation anybody wants to find themselves in.''

In Warwick, Jim Hummel, for The Hummel Report.

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