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They know there’s contamination and the people who own it have just stopped paying taxes on it and just let it go.

St. Lawrence County wants tax money from polluted properties

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St. Lawrence County officials say they're owed nearly $600,000 in unpaid property taxes, mostly from old gas stations. The county wants the money, or the property.

But there's a hitch. As Julie Grant reports, the county doesn't want to be on the hook for a major environmental clean-up.

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Julie Grant
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Drive around the North Country, and you’ll notice old gas stations and other abandoned sites.  St. Lawrence County treasurer Kevin Felt says many of those have oil spills or chemical leaks that haven’t been completely cleaned up.   

Clean ups can cost more than a million dollars. Felt says many owners don’t want anything to do with it.

"Yes, there’s parcels that have been just walked away from," Felt said. "They know there’s contamination there, and the people who own it have just stopped paying taxes on it and just let it go."

Felt said there are eleven polluted properties where the owner is renting to another business but has stopped paying property taxes. In paperwork provided to legislators, Felt’s office shows that Alaskan Oil, for example, owns 3 parcels in Potsdam and Norfolk and is renting those properties to other businesses. 

"The owner has not paid the taxes. The renter is paying rent for something of that service, and doesn’t even know that the taxes are not being paid," Felt said.

Alaskan Oil owes the County more than $117,000 in back taxes on those three parcels. The company could not be reached for comment.

Felt said the county doesn’t want to foreclose on these sites because it doesn’t want the responsibility of cleaning them up.

"That’s why the county has avoided taking ownership of a parcel to put in the foreclosure auction because that gets the county in the line, in the chain of ownership. So the county becomes liable," Felt said. "So any charges brought up against that liability, include St. Lawrence County now."

Felt said St. Lawrence has started working with the state Department of Environmental Conservation to determine the level of environmental damage on some of these sites. He said sometimes a spill can be as minor as five gallons of oil, and clean up is relatively inexpensive, or is just a matter of paperwork.

Felt said if the state signs off that a property is clean, then the county can take possession and sell it. He said money from the sale would help pay for back taxes, and moving forward the property would return to the tax rolls. 

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