by Lewis Griswold, The Fresno Bee
Cities around the Valley are wrestling with a legacy of environmental contamination: a chemical used for decades by dry cleaners.
Now suspected of causing cancer, the chemical has permeated underground water and soil. Cleanup is necessary, but expensive, and there’s no easy way to pay for it.
In Visalia, federal and state environmental agencies, alerted by high levels of the chemical in drinking water wells, dug six test wells last month near existing and former dry-cleaning businesses. The Environmental Protection Agency and California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control were hunting for a plume of perchlorethylene — called PCE — used as dry-cleaning fluid since 1934 that started turning up in Valley water wells in the 1970s.
Results are due this summer, but it’s a foregone conclusion that any PCE found will be blamed on dry cleaners. A 1992 state study found that virtually all contaminated drinking water wells in the Valley had been fouled by dry cleaning fluid, including three in Visalia, two of which are now hooked to filters.
Visalia officials are watching with concern, fearing the city will get snared in a blame game and then be forced to launch expensive lawsuits against property owners, dry-cleaning businesses and others to collect money for cleanups — also known as remediation.
“Cities are always worried about this,” said Mike Olmos, Visalia’s assistant city manager. “If they find contamination, you get into remediation and someone has to take responsibility. We’re watching it carefully to see what they come up with.”
Visalia should be worried, said Roland Stevens, the assistant city attorney of Modesto, which in 1997 sued dry cleaners, dry-cleaning equipment manufacturers, property owners and chemical companies because of well-water contamination. Figuring out who will pay for cleanup is the subject of a long-standing debate involving local, state and federal officials, dry cleaners, property owners and insurance companies.
“We’re concerned about state agencies trying to force us to clean up because they look for whatever deep pockets they can find,” Stevens said.
Lodi residents — including those who might never have had an article of clothing dry cleaned in their lives — are helping pay for cleanup in that city through an $11-a-month charge on their local water bills.
The cost to clean up can be huge.
Modesto estimated it would cost $100 million to clean up its 30 sites.
After a 10 year-battle, the city won a $178 million judgment in 2007 against manufacturers and distributors of dry-cleaning equipment and a chemical company; the judgment was later reduced to $12.7 million, but the city has yet to collect because it’s still tied up in court. The city collected $23.8 million from two chemical companies that settled.
Modesto’s PCE contamination was discovered in 1984, and the cleanup began in 2000. So much PCE is in the soil around one dry-cleaning establishment that it’s a federal Superfund site.
Modesto sued because of what happened in Turlock, Stevens said. Turlock was the first Valley city pressured by the state to do a major cleanup.
Turlock, which found PCE in 1989 at dry cleaners and industrial sites in its downtown, did not sue anyone. Instead, Turlock and the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board agreed the city would clean it up, with help from the state. The city has spent about $1 million so far but is just getting started; the regional board has reimbursed the city about $736,000 for cleanup costs, and the city still expects to spend an additional $459,000.
Watching Turlock dig into its own pockets to tackle an expensive problem convinced Modesto that it had no choice but to sue for cleanup costs, Stevens said. Merced and Lodi also sued; both eventually collected money from insurance companies and others, and launched cleanups that are still going on.
Fresno has several contaminated sites, but only two involve city drinking water wells, said Lon Martin, assistant director of public utilities. One will get a filter and be put back into service.
But Well 117 on Bullard, just west of Blackstone, is too contaminated to use, and the city doesn’t need that well, Martin said. The city has no plans to clean up the contaminated soil, he said, and is relying on the state to find out who caused the problem.
So far, neither well has been conclusively linked to PCE contamination from dry cleaners.
The state Department of Toxic Substances Control is launching an investigation into the source of contamination for Well 117. Once the agency determines who is responsible, then steps would be taken to hold the property owners accountable for the cleanup.
All drinking water is routinely tested for certain chemicals. When PCE is detected, officials search for potential sources of contamination. When a dry- cleaning site is positively identified as the source, the state sends letters to the current and any previous property owners who might be liable, plus any former or current dry cleaning business owners, asking them to pay for cleanup, officials said.
Business owners often turn to their insurance carriers, and sometimes that puts money into the pot, but “we often find there isn’t enough money to do the cleanup,” said Antonia Vorster, supervising engineer for the California Regional Water Quality Control Board. If needed, the water quality board will dip into its Cleanup and Abatement Account as it did for Turlock, she said.
“Why bother with expensive cleanup if the drinking water can be treated?” is a common question, Vorster said. If it’s left underground, she said, it will migrate to other wells.
In California, PCE is being phased out and cannot be used after 2023.
Until the 1980s, the dry-cleaning industry routinely disposed of waste water containing small amounts of the fluid into the sewer system, and waste sludge was dumped on the ground, in a trash bin or down the drain. Sometimes hoses would break and cause spills.
“We disposed of it how we wanted,” said Robert Blackburn of Porterville, former president of the California Cleaners Association. “The industry did what was standard at the time.”
Blackburn is skeptical that contamination poses the risks claimed by regulators: “I’ve breathed that stuff for years and I’m 71, and I’m still alive and kicking.”
Most permanent cleanup of soil is done by drilling a hole in the ground and sucking out the vapors, trapping them in a filter. Water is pumped out and filtered, a process called “pump and treat.”
Scientists are confident the cleanup methods, while costly, work. But the task is daunting because there are hundreds of sites throughout the state, and each site can take years to fix.
“It might not happen in my lifetime,” Vorster said.
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