Dan Davis was deciding how to earn a living four years ago when he was laid off from Kennecott Copper Co.
But the decision he made - to buy an old gas station in Magna for $40,000 and use it as an auto-mechanic shop - may end up costing him his reputation, credit rating and more than $100,000.Although Davis never intended to use the building as a gas station, his decision to buy the property made him owner of the three 2,000-gallon tanks buried beneath what used to be gas pumps. Although the pumps haven't been used for several years, they once leaked.
The state says that leak is Davis' problem.
"I've lost a lot of sleep over this," said Davis, who never realized his goal of being an auto mechanic. He regained his job at Kennecott shortly after buying the property and has been renting it out ever since. He and his wife work full time to support their five children.
He didn't learn about the problem with the tanks until a man who wanted to buy the property asked that the tanks be removed first. A state inspector was on hand, and he saw that the soil around the tanks was contaminated.
"A lot of innocent people are in this situation," said Ken Alkema, the state's director of environmental health. He said about 95 percent of the tanks his staff examines have leaked.
Any tank used after 1976 falls under a state law requiring the owner to clean the mess - even if that owner isn't the one who caused it, officials said.
Alkema said he wishes Utah would establish a fund to pay for the cleaning, or at least provide an insurance fund for tank owners. "We're not in the business of putting people into bankruptcy," he said. "This is a tremendous problem."
Bankruptcy is an option Davis is trying hard to avoid. But he doesn't know how. He can't pay the $5,700 bill to remove the tanks. Now that the state knows the tanks are there, it wants him to pay more than $700 in fees dating back through the four years Davis has owned the property. Estimates on the cost of sampling soil to learn how widespread the leak is have ranged to $10,000, he said.
That doesn't include the cost of cleaning the area.
"One guy said it would be a minimum of $50,000, maybe up to $100,000, to clean it," Davis said. "I don't have the next payment on the property, let alone $100,000."
Meanwhile, he won't be able to sell the property (the offer he received was for $43,500) until the mess is cleaned.
Rep. Dan Tuttle, D-West Valley, is Davis' state representative. He said it may be time for the state to require sellers to inform potential buyers of the presence of underground tanks.
Alkema said most banks are learning to research the existence of tanks before granting loans for purchasing commercial property.
Davis has talked to attorneys who say the company that last used the tanks to store gas should pay for the cleanup. He needs to research who that was, but he doesn't think he can afford the legal fees in any case.
"If this was on Redwood Road and worth $200,000, the bank would work with me," he said. "But here (in Magna) it's only worth $40,000.
"I've never ever missed a payment since I had this place. I never understood before why people went bankrupt, but I can't pay $100,000."
Meanwhile, state officials say they won't push the matter. "It's not worth it for us to go after someone who doesn't have any money," Alkema said. "There probably are at least 100 of these sites around the state."
That's little solace for Davis, who is left with a giant hole in front of a building he can't sell.