North Carolina bill could shield some landowners from storage tank suits

If you're a real property owner, generally you own whatever is below your parcel of land just as much as you own structures on the surface. This can be a good thing when your property rests atop bubbling subterranean oceans of petroleum or rich veins of precious metal. However, while property owners can reap the benefits of buried treasures, they can also wind up with responsibility for underground dangers.

Across the state of North Carolina, thousands of parcels of land hide underground storage tanks. Many of these properties were gas stations at one time. As underground storage tanks age, they tend to crack or otherwise become permeable, often releasing remnant chemicals into the surrounding soil.

For property owners or potential property owners, these underground storage tanks can be extremely problematic. Environmental remediation to address contamination caused by leaking underground tanks may be required by regulatory law, forced upon a landowner through litigation or simply taken on voluntarily as a generally good idea and precautionary measure. Unfortunately, cleaning up after an underground storage tank leak can be a daunting, expensive task, often involving extensive excavation and the removal of hundreds of tons of contaminated soil.

Some North Carolina lawmakers are proposing a new law that would help protect landowners who inherited an underground tank problem. Under House Bill 789, properties contaminated by underground storage tanks would become eligible for the state's Brownfields Program, an initiative that helps facilitate the development of sites that have been marred by environmental concerns.

One of the chief benefits of the Brownfields Program for prospective buyers of sites with underground storage tanks would be a liability shield. After an analysis of safety concerns and subject to certain use restrictions (for instance, agreeing not to include outdoor children's play areas in the development of potentially contaminated areas) = buyers can utilize properties included in the Brownfields Program without fear of later being forced to pay for the costly cleanup of an environmental hazard they had no hand in creating.

The sponsors of House Bill 789 have been vocal in expressing their assurances that the measure would in no way hinder efforts to force parties responsible for environmental contamination to clean up after themselves; only those who did not cause or contribute to the release of storage tank pollutants would be able to take advantage of the Brownfields Program liability shield. If passed, the bill would take effect in July, 2013.

While House Bill 789 is an interesting new proposal, even if it passes, landowners should not assume that it automatically protects them from underground storage tank lawsuits. The laws concerning environmentally contaminated sites are very complex, and anyone who is a current or prospective owner of a piece of land containing an underground storage tank should consult an attorney before taking any significant actions relating to the property. If you have concerns about underground storage tanks, contact a North Carolina environmental litigation attorney today to explore your legal options.