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Ken Koeppler, in front of the building at 351 Russell St. on Madison's east side. He purchased the property in 1987, five years before state law obligated sellers to disclose environmental problems to buyers.

So far, Ken Koeppler has shelled out more than $50,000 to address contamination of his east-side residential property, a former dry cleaning business that sits atop a heap of toxic chemicals. 

But the mild-mannered musician and recording engineer may escape future costs if the state Legislature adopts a bill that state Rep. Chris Taylor plans to introduce this week.

“I’m trying to be optimistic,” Koeppler said.

The bill, known as the Innocent Purchaser Protection law, would exempt landowners like Koeppler from liability for contaminated properties purchased before 1992, when the state passed a law requiring sellers to disclose whether or not a property is contaminated.  

Koeppler said he had no way of knowing when he bought the building 30 years ago that the ground under it was saturated with toxic chemicals. But the state Department of Natural Resources has held him accountable.

Koeppler’s plight was detailed in a Capital Times story last December.

His woes began two years ago when the DNR notified him that it was testing former dry cleaner sites for contamination, and his Schenk’s Corners neighborhood property was on the list.

Under the proposed bill, the owner of a contaminated property would have to prove that the toxic discharge was caused by a previous owner, and that the property was not listed on the DNR’s database of contaminated sites when purchased.

Several states, including Texas and Arizona, have similar laws.

“This legislation is meant to ensure individual property owners, who had no knowledge of property contamination and no way to find out about contamination, aren’t held liable for contamination remediation efforts,” said Taylor, a Madison Democrat whose district includes Koeppler’s property, in a memo seeking co-sponsors for the bill.

According to a DNR memo on the implications of an earlier version of the bill, the legislation "could cost the state millions of dollars in clean-up costs."

As of Friday afternoon, hours before the deadline for lawmakers to sign on, the proposal had garnered the signatures of 13 representatives and three senators. Five of the co-sponsors were Republican representatives.

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The property at 351 Russell St., where Koeppler lived for 17 years and now rents out, was home to Vogue Cleaners from 1960 to 1978. During the business’ operation, the soil beneath the building was contaminated by perchloroethylene, or perc, a solvent used by dry cleaners. Long-term exposure to perc vapors heightens the risk for some cancers, including bladder cancer, multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

To address the contamination, Koeppler has had to hire engineers, install air pumps and monitoring wells, pay for easements and insurance required by the city, and shell out thousands in lawyer fees and water and air testing expenses.

He said he's been struggling to pay bills ever since the ordeal began, and he has finally managed to clear the deck, for now.

"This is the first month I haven't had some old bill trying to catch up with me," he said. 

He said he's not sure if the proposed law would allow him to retrieve any of the expenses he's been forced to pay so far. 

"Maybe I could even get some sort of reimbursement," he said. "But who knows?"

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.