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14-year-old toxins being cleaned from San Jose dry cleaner

By Miranda Simon | 12 Apr 2010

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SAN JOSE, CA. – A former commercial laundry site that is being cleaned up by the Department of Toxic Substances Control, has been found to be contaminated with more than three times as much perchloroethylene (PCE), as allowed by California health standards.

PCE, often called perc, is a man-made chemical used for dry-cleaning clothes. High levels of the chemical can cause dizziness, headache, sleepiness and confusion, when inhaled. Long-term exposure to it can cause cancer, or damage to organs and the nervous and reproductive systems, among other symptoms.

The site, located in Campbell Av., San José, was found to be contaminated as far back as 1996 and is being tested for soil, soil gas, and groundwater contamination since 2005. PCE was found in all three mediums. In 2006, the California Environmental Protection Agency issued an order to clean up the site, but the work did not begin until Feb. 2010.

Roger Dockter, the contractor conducting the clean-up, says the site was not considered a priority because there hasn’t been permanent occupancy since AJ Commercial Laundry ceased operating eight years ago.

“Most of the buildings were used for storage,” Dockter said, “people would come in and out, load and unload but as far as physical occupancy, especially in the area of the hotspot, there werent people that were getting exposed daily.”

The indoor air survey of the buildings in the former commercial laundry, found the PCE concentration was as high as 240 micrograms per cubic meter (ug/m3). The California Human Health Screening Levels indicate that 0.693 ug/m3 is the highest amount of PCE that should be present in the air before it begins to have effects on human health.

The site is surrounded by residential buildings, but the Department of Toxic Substances Control says the PCE levels in the soil are low towards the periphery of the building, indicating that the contaminant will not evaporate into the air outside.

“Theres always someone that will ask questions: is it getting into my vegetable garden, is it getting into my fruit tree, am I breathing it in my house,” says Roger Dockter, the contractor conducting the clean-up. “More or less the data that we’ve collected here so far, pretty much indicates that its localized.”
Dockter says that because there is no water source nearby, there is no risk of contamination in the drinking water.

He also says that investigation process conducted in contaminated sites, is usually very lengthy, and this is one of the reasons for the lag. It will take a year or two for the clean up to be completed, said Dockter.

The site consists of two parcels measuring one acre each, but the clean up work is currently being done on Building No. 3, the building in which AJ Commercial Laundry was located until 2002. Other businesses occupied the site, from 1987 to the last years of AJ Commercial Laundry’s operation, including a furniture manufacturer.

AJ Commercial Laundry was a soap and water cleaner until aproximately 2001, when it purchased the locale of the furniture manufacturer adjacent and set up a dry-cleaning machine, eventually expanding to the whole site.

The Department of Toxic Substances Control is currently testing the groundwater underneath the site, to determine the level of contamination and how deep it is. PCE is much denser than water and settles down at the bottom, taking several weeks to break down.

Bradley Angel, Director of the environmental organization Greenaction says that, in many of the PCE contamination cases the organization has handled in the past, he has found that the Department of Toxic Substances Control tends to trivialize the severity of contamination. Angel was out of his office during the time this article was written and was not able to comment further.

Andrew Berna-Hicks of the Department of Toxic Substances Control, however, does not exclude the possibility of contamination and health hazard for workers during the time AJ Commercial Laundry was in operation.

“The levels [of PCE] are high now, so there probably was a problem when it was operating, but that’s speculation,” says Berna-Hicks. “It could be that when they closed the business down, in order to get rid of all the chemicals they had… or it might have spilled in.”

The polluter is required by law to pay for the clean up, but the operators of the AJ Commercial Laundry business have disappeared from the scene, and the cleanup is being financed by the owner of the property.

“It’s the principle of Joint and Several Liability,” says Carol Northrup, from the Department of Toxic Substances Control’s External Affairs Office. “Everybody who contributed to the contamination is responsible under federal law, so we can go after everyone that was associated.”

The precise cost is still unknown, but Dockter says solvent site cleanups can range from $1 million to $2 million, depending on the tightness of the soil. The tighter the soil, the harder it is to extract the solvent.

If no responsible party can be found through Joint and Several Liability, the site is considered “orphan” and may be eligible for a PCE fund, extracted from the state general fund, which consists of $10 million a year. There are approximately 100 orphan sites in California, so only five to ten sites can be cleaned up in a year.

In contrast, fuel spills are financed through a tank fund that provides $100 million a year. “ Two cents per gallon from the taxes collected through gasoline use, are used to fund these cleanups. Though, according to Dockter, fuel spills are more common than PCE spills, decontamination is half the cost.

A dual extraction process is being used for the clean up. The solvent is extracted from the groundwater and soil and filtered through a layer of granulated carbon, which absorbs the PCE. The carbon is then disposed of in a sealed container into a landfill, or further processed to break down the perchlorethylene. The fee for the disposal of the carbon is included in the overall cost presented to the person or business paying for the cleanup.

“Sometimes it takes a long time to clean it up and I know there’s a lot of frustration among the owners of properties,” says Berna-Hicks, “because they’ll say, we didn’t know, we just rented the property to this drycleaner, it’s not our fault. But if they weren’t making money on the property they probably wouldn’t be doing the cleanup anyway.

The owners have already placed the contaminated Campbell Avenue property on sale for $3.25 million according to an online realty advertiser. Berna-Hicks says the extraction of groundwater contamination may be able to continue even if the building is occupied.

By law, any spill must be reported to the Department of Toxic Substances Control, but the business that contaminated is unlikely to report if that means they will have to pay for the clean up. This, and the Department’s increasingly passive role in finding contaminated sites, brings forth the question of whether there are many unsafe businesses, which remain unreported because of the burden of cost.

“People don’t admit to these kind of things cause they know they’d be liable,” says Berna-Hicks. “People don’t just come forward and say: we dumped gallons of PCE into this trench in the back of the building.”

Susan Luong, of the Department of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment of the California Environmental Protection Agency, says that most of the cases are reported to environmental authorities through lawsuits filed by nearby businesses or people who have suffered direct injury from the contamination – or from any party interested in selling the property.

However, Proposition 65, which outlines the environmental regulation of businesses, does not compel companies with fewer than 10 employees to report on any spills. This excludes many so called “mom and pop drycleaners.”

“I don’t know [why this is],” said Luong, who works in the division of Implementation of Proposition 65. “The people of California voted that.”

This is one of 473 dry cleaning sites around California, that are being decontaminated due to high levels of PCE, according to the Department of Toxic Substances Control.

The Department is in charge of the governors Green Chemistry Initiative, and is required to prioritize “chemicals of concern” and regulate them “from cradle to grave.” But Northrup admits there are scientific disputes regarding the environmental and health effects of green alternatives to PCE.

California banned PCE in 2007. The last PCE machines are expected to be removed from service by January 1, 2023. About 80 percent of dry cleaners in the US still use PCE, but some dry cleaning businesses have switched to green solutions.

“I bought this shop around 2003 and, at that time, perc was the only solution for drycleaning,” said Hamid Behestaein, owner of Holiday Cleaners in Mountainview. “When they created hydrocarbon, I went to get that machine because it’s good for my health and good for my customer’s health.”

The problem with the hydrocarbon solution that Mr. Behestaein buys is that it also contains suspected carcinogenic and known neurotoxin chemicals, and it also contributes to smog, according to the California Air Resources Board.

Green Earth, a Kansas City company, provides Siloxane D5, an odorless, colorless liquid that has also become popular among drycleaners. But, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, it was seen to increase uterine tumors in rats exposed to it at the highest concentration. It isn’t certain whether humans run the same risk.

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