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Local dry cleaners say mandatory machinery upgrades hit budgets hard

Editor's note: This is the second of two stories dealing with state efforts to deal with the chemical perchloroethylene, which officials believe increases the risk of cancer and other health problems.

Considering the recession's effect on his downtown Visalia dry-cleaning business, Greg Smith says now isn't the best time to shell out more than $75,000 for new dry-cleaning machinery.

But he doesn't have much choice.

A December 2006 regulation handed down by the California Air Resources Board set a timeline for all drycleaners in the state to phase out the use of cleaning solvents with perchloroethylene - also known as "PCE" or "Perc." The chemical has been used heavily by the industry for at least 70 years.

That means phasing out the dry-cleaning machines that use solvents with PCE by 2023. New or replacement machines must use other solvents or a combination of water and detergents considered less hazardous - a rule in place since last year.

When the regulations were handed down, more than 4,600 drycleaners in California used PCE solvents. The current number is about 3,500, according to the Air Resources Board, though the figure for Tulare County was not available.

Another part of the regulation states that drycleaners with machines using PCE solvents must replace them earlier if they turn 15 years old before the 2023 deadline.

Paragon Cleaners has been at the same Willis Street address since 1938, and Smith and his wife bought it 13 years ago.

Their cleaning machinery already is older than 15 years, and the regulations give him until August 2010 to replace it.

The machinery Smith plans to buy uses a solvent with hydrocarbons instead of PCE.

"It's a financial burden," Smith said. "Our business has slowed due to the recession. It's a tough time for cleaners to have that kind of capital outlay."

Ahead of the switch

Some companies already have made the switch. Knowing the regulations were coming down the pike, Jeff Todd and his partners bought non-PCE cleaning equipment for the cleaning business they opened in November 2007, The Laundry Lady Cleaners on West Noble Avenue in Visalia.

The machinery does wet cleaning instead of drycleaning, meaning that water and detergent are used to clean clothes. Drycleaning involves clothes being soaked in solvent.

In the past, water and dry-clean-only clothing were not a good mix, but new technology changed that, said Todd, who also uses a steam dryer and a special pressing system to prevent shrinkage and damage.

But critics wonder whether all this is necessary.

Debate on PCE

The state's regulations on PCE stem from concerns that it is a carcinogen that can cause cancer, kidney and reproductive problems and other ailments The chemical has been discovered in groundwater systems across the country - including Visalia.

Periodically over the past week, workers under contract with the U.S Environmental Protection Agency have been drilling wells and taking soil samples across the street from Paragon and around the business, as well as around three other current and former downtown dry-cleaning businesses. They're looking for traces of PCE that may have spilled into the ground and gotten into the groundwater.

PCE has been found in a some wells beneath downtown since the early 1990s, and the levels were high enough that at least one well was destroyed. On four others, carbon filters were installed to remove the chemical and allow the water meet health standards for drinking.

While there is no doubt the dry-cleaning industry played a role in PCE getting into the groundwater, Smith said, it's wrong for environmental agencies to vilify drycleaners. For most of the years PCE solvents have been used, they weren't considered hazardous or even regulated in dry-cleaning or other industries that use them largely as degreasers.

"Until 1971, the solvent could be poured down the drain or poured into the garden," he said.

In 1991, California began a series of control measures requiring waste from PCE solvents to be disposed of as hazardous materials. The state required dry-cleaners to document amounts used, inspect machinery for leaks and track disposal.

Now, state and federal officials trying to measure the level of PCE in Visalia's groundwater and track the sources say current owners of dry-cleaning operations could have to foot part or all of the cleanup bill, which might run into millions of dollars if significant amounts are found.

That makes no sense, said Smith, noting that current owners of Visalia's four dry-cleaning businesses began running them after the state regulations took effect. And he wonders whether it would be fair for the former owners to be forced to pay up, as they did nothing illegal years ago.

He compared it to getting your 1970 taxes audited using 1990 laws and being penalized for it.

"On a personal level, that seems foreign to me," he said.

In addition, Smith said, the concerns about PCE are overblown.

A summary of PCE risks on the EPA Web sits states that epidemiological studies show dry-cleaning workers exposed to PCE run increased risks of several types of cancer. In addition, it states that animal studies of chemical exposure show increased liver, stomach and kidney cancer in mice as well a leukemia in rats from exposure.

"There is no known safe level of exposure," said Dimitri Stanich, a spokesman for the Air Resources Board

But Smith cited other studies, including one released in 2001 for the American Council on Science and Health, that downplay the health risks.

"Overall, the available evidence strongly suggests that the general population is not at risk from exposure to PCE," he said.

One exception: Workers in the dry-cleaning industry who have high levels of exposure, according to the report.

"My biggest issue is the flawed science they are using," Smith said.

The state regulates PCE as a cancer-causing contaminant, said Chris Skelton, Visalia branch manager for BSK Associates, an environmental consulting firm that has worked on PCE cleanup operations.

"I can't say what the health risk is," Skelton said. "[Smith's] got his opinion, and the state has theirs. It's going to get regulated either way."

Smith agreed.

"On things like this," he said, "you can't fight the government."

(read online version)

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