MONROVIA — When automobile garage operator Dale Smith's landlord announced he was selling the property in 1985, Smith had to choose between moving his business or buying the land.
Dipping into savings and borrowing from family to make the down payment, Smith purchased the parcel, which also included a small gasoline station.
Smith thought it would be "neat" to run the old-fashioned station with its three 1950s gas pumps with curved tops.
Although Dale's Auto Service is doing fine, the station on the corner of Shamrock and Walnut avenues has been closed and pitted with holes since 1987.
Smith's problems began when he had to test four buried gasoline tanks for leaks under a state law the county Department of Public Works was just beginning to enforce. Initial results showed that all of the station's 500-gallon tanks were leaking and each had to be unearthed for closer examination.
Smith says he can't afford to replace the tanks and will not be able to reopen the station.
But he must still pay for cleaning up the soil contaminated by leaking gasoline. Estimates of the cost range from $50,000 to $200,000, the amount he is paying for the property.
'A Dark Cloud'
"It's been like a dark cloud over me, not knowing if I'm going to lose" the garage, the 38-year-old Pasadenan said. "I've spent pretty much everything.
"Now it's common knowledge--about cleaning up toxics," Smith said. But when he bought the station he said he had no idea he might someday have to test for possible contamination.
It was not until 1986 that all businesses in the county with underground tanks were notified that they had to test for leaks, said Carl Sjoberg, head of the county's underground tank program. The state law, passed in 1983, also requires that all underground tanks be fitted with monitoring devices to detect seepage, he added.
Suit for Voiding Sale
Smith filed a suit last year against the previous owners of property and the station, Jon Biasotti and his sister, Mary Purbaugh. Smith wants the sale voided and compensation for the more than $20,000 he has spent on testing the tanks.
Pasadena Superior Court Judge Melvin Grover has postponed setting a trial date until August so Smith can complete a final drilling to determine the extent of the contamination, said Jules Sanford, attorney for Biasotti and Purbaugh.
That report should be ready within three weeks, Sanford said, adding that his clients are willing to share some of the cleanup costs. Smith's attorney, David Weiss, would not comment.
Tests have shown that one tank was leaking severely, contaminating soil in an area at least 10 feet wide and 80 feet deep.
"I just hope that some of this (cost) may come off what I still owe for the property," said Smith. But he said he feels no anger toward Biasotti, who is 84.
'It's All He's Got'
"He always assumed it was OK because the station was so small," Smith said. "I don't believe he really tried to cheat me. He's retiring on it, and it's all he's got."
Biasotti could not be reached for comment but Purbaugh, 77, said her brother was unaware of any leaks.
"There was never any question of a leak, and all of a sudden there's this ecological stuff. Everything's so new," she said. "It's costing everybody a lot of money."
The last drilling needed at the station will cost Smith $5,000.
"I haven't saved up for it yet," he said.
One possible cleanup method would be to sink a well and draw up contaminated vapors from the soil using a suction pump, according to Matt Schofield, a project manager at Long Beach-based Western Environmental Services, the firm Smith hired to examine the leaks. The vapor is passed through carbon particles, which clean it before it is released into the atmosphere.
A soft-spoken, bespectacled man with a beard, Smith has worked at the garage for two decades, first as a teen-ager who came to help after school and on Saturdays, then as a full-time mechanic after 1971. The land was leased from Biasotti and Purbaugh, who operated the gas station with a snack shop. When his uncle, who owned the two-mechanic garage, died in 1981, Smith took over the business.
Since the soil was tested, he has disposed of all the tanks. He has ruled out replacing them, which could cost up to $250,000 to meet state and federal standards, he said.
According to Hank Yacoub, supervising toxics engineer for the state Regional Water Quality Control Board in Los Angeles, federal law requires that by 1993 all underground tanks and piping systems be double-walled with monitoring systems between each casing.
The discovery of toxic contamination at a site can have a devastating impact on investors, he said, adding that he has heard horror stories about real estate deals that have cost buyers hundreds of thousands of dollars.
He warns that buyers are taking a chance when they invest in untested property. "Some make a lot of money, others may lose their shirt."
Although courts have decided liability issues on a case-by-case basis, Yacoub said that, generally, "if the buyer has not made any attempt to look into records, he's pretty much finished."
He said that about 50% of the estimated 40,000 underground tanks in the county are leaking.
Until recently, sellers were not required to inform prospective investors about possible leaks at a site.
Under a 1986 state law strongly backed by the California Assn. of Realtors, sellers now have to fill out disclosure forms listing irregularities in the property, including the presence of underground tanks which may contain hazardous materials, according to Sylvia Acuna, vice president of the Monrovia-Duarte Board of Realtors.
Noting that Smith is not alone in his plight, Sjoberg said he expects more leaks to surface--along with questions of liability--as people begin installing the required leak detection devices.