The Public's Health Gets Taken to the Cleaners

How many Americans realize as they’re pumping gas into their cars that in most states a small fraction of the price per gallon (usually a fraction of a penny) is directed to a government-administered program to clean up pollution from leaking underground tanks? There are no signs on the pumps, no coverage in the mainstream media – these programs go virtually unnoticed. How ironic that arguably the single most effective environmental program, a program that has resulted in the remediation of tens of thousands of petroleum spills across the country, exists in anonymity. It isn’t surprising, then, that we remain ignorant of the second most substantial threat to our drinking water resources — releases of dangerous chemicals by dry cleaners.

That fuel contamination funding programs are active in most states owes to a couple of simple facts. First, they are equitable — the fees to remedy the pollution are paid by the people who benefit from the product — so if you don’t buy gas, you don’t pay a fee. Second, the programs work — the volume of gasoline consumed is staggering, and as such even a fee of a fraction of a cent per gallon generates a substantial sum. This cleanup funding mechanism, coupled with improvements in tank construction and monitoring, has removed leaking fuel tanks from our list of urgent environmental concerns. The problem posed by dry-cleaning chemicals, however, remains unaddressed.

Unbeknownst to many, the dry-cleaning process isn’t dry at all; it simply uses non-water-based solvents to clean garments. The earliest process chemistry relied on refined petroleum products, such as kerosene. The flammability of the earliest fluids, however, motivated the development of a substitute, and in the 1940s the industry developed the chlorinated solvent perchloroethylene (perc), which remains the predominant chemical used by dry cleaners today.

Promoting Cleanups of Dry-cleaner Sites The State Coalition for Remediation of Drycleaners was established in 1998, with support from the EPA Office of Superfund Remediation and Technology Innovation. It is comprised of representatives of the 13 states with established dry-cleaner remediation programs. SRCD provides a forum for interested parties to share programmatic, technical, and environmental information to improve the remediation of dry-cleaner sites. The SRCD website contains links to individual state programs and implementing legislation, as well as to a wide variety of technical resources and case studies. Visit SRCD at

While of utility to the dry-cleaning process, perc, unfortunately, has been established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to be a potential carcinogen. Its degradation product, vinyl-chloride, is a known carcinogen. In addition to the potential hazard posed by perc to dry-cleaner workers, perc can migrate through concrete floors and has the propensity to leak from sanitary sewer mains. Perc releases from dry cleaners and consequent contamination of groundwater resources are very common. EPA has established a maximum contaminant level (MCL) of 5 parts per billion (ppb) for perc in groundwater.

Just as gasoline is no longer stored in unsafe tanks, the drycleaning industry is slowly moving towards the use of moreenvironmentally friendly garment cleaning techniques (carbon dioxide and water-based cleaning systems) and dry-cleaning equipment that does not discharge waste solvent to the environment (closed-loop systems). The evolution has been in part motivated by legislation — for example, a law enacted in California in January 2007 phases out the use of perc and legislates a complete ban by 2023. Financial incentives have also been established to help business owners (most dry cleaners are small independent businesses) pay for the replacement of older equipment with non-perc cleaning machines. While recognizing advances in the development of alternatives, what remains unaddressed is the damage that has been done and will continue to be incurred for the decades that pass before the chemical is completely phased out. There are approximately 27,000 perc-based dry cleaners operating in the United States today. Additionally, there probably are at least as many properties that have been operated as dry cleaners in the past. Estimates have pegged the percentage of cleaners that have leaked or released perc into the environment at approximately 75 percent. When considered in its totality, the universe of potentially perc-contaminated property and the risk to human health and the environment is substantial.

Why Perc Releases From Dry Cleaners Remains Largely Unaddressed
In a California study referenced by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) in 2005, one water supply well in every ten tested was shown to contain dry-cleaning solvents. One in ten. A 2006 national study by the United States Geological Survey found 5 percent of wells tested (both domestic and municipal supply wells) to contain the solvents. This is no small frequency, this is epidemic. Yet only 13 states have seen fit to implement a program similar to the extremely successful underground tank contamination response program. How can this be?

Lack of a Strong Political Lobby
Unfortunately perhaps, progressive environmental policy doesn’t always flow from the obvious need to do good. The success of the underground tank funding programs owes in large part to the work by major oil companies and industry advocates who recognized the enormous financial liability posed by leaking tanks. The dry-cleaning lobby, due largely to the fact that most dry cleaners are small independent businesses, is not as strong, and has been unable or unwilling in most states to gain the political traction necessary to win the results achieved by the oil lobbies.

“Corporate Polluters Must Pay” Mentality
Many environmental advocates remain wed to the notion that only the large corporate interests should be held responsible for environmental degradation caused by their products. The cost to clean must be exclusively borne by these corporations; the small businesses that elected to use (and spill) the product and the consumers that demand the service should not be held accountable. To these passionate people a solution that does not exact punishment against the manufacturers of the chemicals is unacceptable.

It’s a Tax
Politicians and their advisors are deathly afraid of anything that resembles a tax. Regardless of the fact that a fee levied on a product, paid only by those who use the product, and directed exclusively to a program to administer a cure for the damage caused by the product is not by definition a tax, it looks enough like one to motivate the politically timid to do … nothing. Dry Cleaners Complain “It Will Put Me out of Business” This is the call to arms heard from small business owners who believe that a per-garment surcharge will lessen the demand for their services. This is a legitimate concern, though a program thoughtfully enacted (as observed in the 13 states with programs – see sidebar), can accomplish its environmental objectives without putting anybody out of work.

The businesses that may find themselves with less work are those that prefer to remain out of the public view. These are the entities that profit from environmental litigation. The establishment of a program to address dry-cleaning chemical pollution en masse would significantly lessen the need for this type of contamination- driven lawsuit. And those who profit from the lawsuits have a vested interest in seeing a progressive solution kept sidelined for as long as possible.

Regulators Worry “It Will Put Dry Cleaners out of Business” This sentiment is actually an indirect reason for the lack of consistent state to state funding programs. It doesn’t pertain to a program per se, it’s a belief held by environmental regulators charged with the enforcement of environmental laws. Regulators are often reluctant to pursue vigorous enforcement of releases from dry cleaners – because they believe enforcement will put the dry cleaners out of business. This compassion is well-meaning and in the short term protects the lives and livelihoods of the families that own the cleaners. But in the long run the lack of vigorous enforcement has the larger problem seem less severe than it truly is; were dry cleaners folding under the financial pressure of needed cleanup it is certain that the clamor for relief would be heard.

A New Approach
Economists refer to environmental costs that flow from drycleaning chemicals and gasoline (and myriad other products) as “externalities.” These are expenses associated with a product or a practice that are ultimately incurred, not necessarily by the product’s manufacturer or user, but by the general public or the environment. These are expenses whose cost is not factored into the product’s price, and for which no mechanism exists for convenient allocation. Externalities exist because of the lack of immediate connection between the product and the damage it causes. Once a connection is made, an accommodation can be crafted, either through legislation that requires “cradle to grave” product responsibility, or through a levy program such as that applied to the underground storage tank externality.

Some will protest that the manufacturer must bear ultimate responsibility, that the profit associated with bringing a dangerous chemical to the market should be diminished such that all externalities are internalized, or back-charged to the chemical’s first developer. In the case of dry-cleaning solvent, such an argument may be specious, as the hazards associated with the chemical have been known by its users and by environmental regulators for many years.

At the end of the day, though, what do these arguments really prove? At the end of the day the consumer pays; the consumer always pays. If the externality of human health and the environment had been incorporated into the price of the dry-cleaning solvent at its point of manufacture, the expense would have been secondarily reflected in the price of cleaning the garments. The fact is clear — the consumer has thus far been buying the dry-cleaning service at a discount. Every customer of a dry cleaner that uses or used perc has paid a bill that did not include the cost to human health and the environment. These charges have been accruing, are now overdue, and there is no resource available to pay the bill.

The confluence of opinion, indifference and vested interest has thus far blocked the implementation of a simple, inexpensive and proven-effective approach to environmental protection in most states. At what cost? As the years pass, the drinking water resources contaminated by these chemicals increase in number. At a time when changing weather patterns have mountain snowpacks diminished and overproduction has depleted the great American aquifers to a shadow of their original selves, the availability and sustainability of water resources in some areas is called into question.

Groundwater resources are increasingly precious commodities — we ignore the threat to these resources, and elect to avoid a simple measure to increase their quality and protection, at our own peril. It is imperative that the states without programs work now to craft legislation necessary for the overdue solution to this pressing problem. The legislation won’t be new or bold, and won’t necessarily be without early opposition, as those who perceive their interests threatened will throw up hurdles and smokescreens in an attempt to move the undertaking off course.

A tally of the beneficiaries, however, demonstrates that the measure will engender broad support, and, once the fires of obfuscation burn out, the path to an extremely positive legislative undertaking will be visibly clear.

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/2007 issue of Environmental Protection.

About the Author

Laurie Earl, JD, is a Jones Day associate who provided substantial assistance with this article. The views set forth herein are the personal views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of Jones Day.

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