Alarmed property buyers are seeking protection from new laws that could make them liable for contamination of ground and surface water blamed on their new holdings.

Federal statutes do not protect unwary buyers, even though the pollution problems may stem from the operations of previous owners, said Assistant Utah Attorney General Fred Nelson.New laws force buyers to rid their land of pre-existing contamination under threat of strict penalties that can include fines and prison, Nelson told members of the American Water Resources Association.

The conference focused on Utah water pollution and methods being adopted by federal, state and local agencies to combat it.

Speakers related chilling examples of property owners who have been imprisoned for either failing to clean up water pollution or rigging documents to cover it.

Larry Jenkins, a Salt Lake attorney who specializes in water pollution cases, said many Utah businesses are employing full-time staffs to deal with proliferating environmental laws and regulations.

Jenkins said it is not uncommon for prospective buyers to go through environmental assessments before purchasing property.

"Often the costs of environmental cleanup far exceed the value of the property," Jenkins said.

He cited one case where a buyer of otherwise pristine forest land later discovered ground water contamination left from when the land was used to build pianos a century ago. Paint and stain had seeped into the ground, polluting the water table, he said.

Jenkins warned property buyers to go through local or federal environmental authorities and take steps to protect themselves from liability.

"If you don't factor in the cost of the environment, you are going to have to factor in a much higher cost later," he said.

Jenkins pointed out that federal laws mandate prison sentences for environmental damage.