If you've ever considered owning a small business, or are considering owning one, you've probably heard all the usual advice. Make sure you have enough capital. Only let family run the cash register. Don't take in a partner without an ironclad contract. Location, location, location.
What you may not have heard is this one: Be careful you don't get nailed with hazardous waste remediation and lose your shirt.
How could that happen? You're not opening a nuclear reactor, just an ice cream shop.
Aha! What if the site you select for your ice cream shop ends up being in a district where the water is found to contain too many parts per million of some noxious substance or another and you have to close down or move? Or worse, be permitted to stay, but be required by local government to hang a sign at the order window telling customers they drink your sodas at their own risk? It has happened to a shop in the town of Finksburg, Maryland. Fortunately, the local population isn't too concerned about that stuff in the water, and the owner didn't have to close up shop, risking his investment and his livelihood. But he without a doubt lost business.
That was a mild case of the 'environmental flu.' Others can be much worse.
Fortunately, there is insurance for that sort of thing, and having it might even help you get financing for your new venture. Originally meant for big business, ones that might easily buy a 40-acre site that was a pharmaceutical waste dump in the 1950s and is now in need of expensive remediation, secured creditor environmental insurance now comes in sizes to fit most businesses, large and small.
These policies protect both the business owner and the business owner's lender in the event that contamination of the business site is found and must be cleaned up. The insurance takes care of the cost of remediation, or the loan if the owner must default because of the cost of remediation. And it also covers liability claims, including bodily injury. Note: These policies cover only claims based in environmental laws in effect at the time the policy was written, not claims based on later regulation and legislation.
In effect, secured creditor environmental insurance acts much like title insurance.
Title insurance includes an investigation of the real estate to make certain all previous deed transfers, survey and so on were correct. If the investigation failed to find something that later becomes a problem, the title insurance takes care of it.
Secured creditor environmental insurance policies also require an investigation into the prior uses of the land. If a problem is later discovered, but the investigation was conducted with due diligence, then the insurance pays for the cleanup. In all cases, the policies won't pay off if information that results in claims has been withheld.
Unlike title insurance, secured creditor environmental insurance companies also want to know what the intended future use of the site will be.
You want to open an ice cream store? You'd probably have no problem. The Finksburg case is actually unusual.
Dry cleaner? Sure, although your deductible will be fairly high, in the $1,750 range. Note, too, that managers of strip malls, where most dry cleaners are located, are beginning to require dry cleaning shop owners to have some sort of pollution liability insurance. Cleaning up a spill at a dry cleaning store costs about $50,000 on average; the deductible will be somewhere around $10,000.
Nuclear reactor? Get real.