Conn. Gas Station Owners Imprisoned for Polluting

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Conn. Gas Station Owners Imprisoned for Polluting

NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- A father and son who ran four Connecticut convenience stores and gas stations got prison time yesterday for violating state environmental laws designed to prevent gasoline from leaking into the water supply.

Superior Court Judge Roland Fasano sent Russell Mahler Sr., 77, to prison for three years and ordered him to pay about $498,000 in restitution for clean-up costs, according to the New Haven Register. Mahler and his son, Russell Mahler Jr., had been charged with discharging gasoline into state waters without a permit and failure to properly close an underground storage tank.

Russell Mahler Jr. was sentenced to one year in prison. The men opted to plead guilty to their roles as part of a plea bargain agreement.

"State law requires owners and operators of gas stations to follow strict rules, as the risk to human health can be grave," Assistant State's Attorney Tamberlyn Conopask told Fasano.

The state alleged the defendants failed to keep their tanks upgraded or test them for leaks. The father owned convenience stores and gas stations in West Haven, Wallingford, Branford and North Haven. The younger Mahler helped operate the stations/convenience stores. The state Department of Environmental Protection had to remove the old tanks after the stations were abandoned and clean up pollution, according to Conopask. In West Haven, the cost fell to that community.

The Wallingford gas station continued to operate despite old gas storage tanks, polluted the property and neighboring land, and caused a risk of explosion at the nearby Oakdale Theatre, Conopask alleged. Clean up at the Wallingford site alone cost the DEP about $300,000, the report said.

Attorney William Bloss, who represents Mahler Sr., said his client accepts responsibility. "He simply ran out of money -- it was not a willful, intentional act," Bloss said. "He didn't have the money to replace the fuel tanks. He didn't walk away from the properties, he was foreclosed on and pushed out."

The elder Mahler said he had trouble competing with companies like Exxon and Mobil. "With the Gulf War, I couldn't afford gas, and I tried to sell the stations," Mahler Sr. said. "We did the best we could."

Scott Deshefy, supervising environmental analyst with the DEP, called using degraded gasoline storage tanks a "virtual guarantee of future pollution. One gallon of gasoline can contaminate millions of gallons of drinking water," he said.

By closing out their tanks on time, the Mahlers could have gone to the state clean-up fund for reimbursement, Deshefy said.

Michael McCurry, property maintenance code official in West Haven, said the city had to foreclose on the Mahlers' gas station, only to find leaking underground tanks. "The city has spent $263,400 and will have to spend another $50,000," McCurry said.