Step Back Inn owners refuse to settle case against Western Refining
AZTEC — The battle between owners of the Step Back Inn and Western Refining continues as both sides dispute terms of a settlement agreement over alleged contamination of the hotel's property.
For more than a decade, Linn and Tweeti Blancett, owners of the hotel in Aztec, have fought in the courts to get Western Refining to pay for damages the couple says were caused when gasoline leaked from underground fuel tanks at a service station off U.S. Highway 550.
The Blancetts argue that as early as 1992, the station's tanks leaked gasoline into the ground, which spread across the road and under their hotel property.
Stuart Faith, an environmental engineer in Albuquerque, has investigated the leak for the Blancetts for 10 years. Faith studied fuel storage tank inventory records from the service station and other reports from the state's environment department, which he believes document the leak.
"We created a database to chart, month by month, year by year, the evidence," Faith said. "There was no question that there was a significant leak at the Dial site in 1992."
The station was then owned by Dial Oil Co. In May 2007, Western Refining purchased Dial. The purchase agreement included service stations like the Giant station, then called the Sun Dial Deli Mart No. 2, that the Blancetts accuse of contaminating their property.
Faith contends that in 1993 to 1994, anywhere from 1 to 3 feet of floating gasoline was found roughly 10 feet beneath the surface of the hotel's property. Pouring over collected data of storage tanks, Faith says the leak was roughly 6,000 to 12,000 gallons of fuel.
A reclamation system paid for by the state only retrieved a quarter of the fuel, Faith said.
Faith also argues a second leak of about 8,000 gallons of premium fuel occurred from 1999 to 2005.
Tweeti Blancett had hoped all along to have the state enforce cleanup of her property and to pursue damages in court. In a Sept. 13 meeting between the Blancetts and attorneys on both sides, Tweeti Blancett said she left the meeting by telling the defendant's attorney that she would settle for $425,000, along with a letter of indemnification so that she could sell her hotel.
Western's attorney, Charles Vigil, balked at providing an indemnification letter and insists now that both sides have agreed to a confidential settlement agreement, according to Tweeti Blancett.
Vigil declined to comment and referred questions to Gary Hanson, vice president of corporate communications at Western Refining.
"We have pending litigation in place, so I'm not able to comment," Hanson said on Friday from the company's headquarters in El Paso, Texas. "That's really the only stance we can take on the matter until it is resolved."
At the Sept. 13 settlement meeting, Tweeti Blancett denies she did any more than verbally agree to settle and wait for a final document to review and sign. Western's lawyers did not provide her anything in writing at the meeting.
She received a rough draft of a settlement agreement Friday.
"When I walked out the door (of the Sept. 13 meeting), I asked them to send me the documents, and I'd settle," Tweeti Blancett said. "But there was no discussion of anything except damages to the hotel. What they're trying to get out of is any responsibility for contamination and muzzle me in the process. But I'm not about to sign something that I never agreed to."
In an Oct. 4 email that Tweeti Blancett shared with The Daily Times, Vigil accused her of acting in bad faith by violating the terms of a draft of the settlement agreement by speaking publicly about the case. Tweeti Blancett called those allegations "ludicrous."
Since Sept. 17, Tweeti Blancett wrote to her attorney, Michael Newell, to ask for a final bill. She decided to pursue this case without representation, she said, after 10 years of legal headaches that have gone nowhere.
"As long as I can tell my side of the story to the public, maybe people will stand up with me and say no to being bullied by these big oil companies," she said. "As far as I am concerned, I will show up at the 11th district courthouse steps on Nov. 4 and tell my story.
Wary of the long battle to seek damages and have her polluted property cleaned up, Tweeti Blancett is sticking with her decision to fight without a lawyer.
"They're trying to beat me up, trying to beat me in the ground," she said. "I'll take my chance in court with a jury of my peers and tell my story. Sometimes, you just have to make tough decisions and stand up for what's right."