Contributed by Trey Hess P.E., Brownfield Redevelopment Director, PPM Consultants
This is Part 1 of 4 of a technical series on the impact that past and present use of perchloroethylene in the dry-cleaning industry has had on human health, the environment, the commercial real estate market, and the future of EPA’s Superfund Program.
I have been using the same dry cleaner here in Ridgeland, Mississippi for over twenty years; so in February when I saw a sign on the door and the attendant announced that they would close for good at the end of the month, I could not help but wonder what will become of these closed dry cleaning facilities, particularly in the wake of Covid-19 and EPA’s recent re-evaluation of the risks associated with perchloroethylene, or PERC (also known as tetrachloroethylene or PCE).
Hastening the End of PERC
The Covid-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on small businesses in the United States, including dry cleaners. With the shift to working from home, demand for dry cleaning services decreased, and many people have been avoiding public spaces, which has led to a decline in foot traffic for businesses that rely on in-person customers. The pandemic has also caused supply chain disruptions, resulting in higher prices for dry cleaning supplies, putting additional financial strain on already struggling businesses. According to a survey conducted by the National Cleaners Association (NCA) in the United States in 2020, 30% of dry cleaners reported a decline in business of over 50% compared to the previous year. The NCA also reported that some dry cleaners have had to close their doors permanently due to the pandemic. Also, the number of business establishments offering “dry-cleaning and laundry services, except coin-operated” fell to 16,497 in the first quarter of 2022 from 18,756 in the last quarter of 2019, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, an annualized decline of nearly 6%.
Then in December 2022, EPA released a final revised risk determination for PERC. The final revised risk determination found that PERC presents an unreasonable risk of injury to health under its conditions of use. In the December 2020 risk evaluation, EPA reviewed the exposures and hazards of perchloroethylene and made risk findings on the chemical. This risk evaluation included input from the public and peer reviewers as required by the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA) and associated regulations. EPA considered the hazards and exposure, magnitude of risk, exposed population, severity of the hazard, uncertainties, and other factors as part of its unreasonable risk determination.
EPA assessed the impact of perchloroethylene on workers, occupational non-users, consumers and bystanders. The primary health risks identified in the risk evaluation are neurological effects from short- and long-term exposure to the chemical and cancer from long-term exposure. After reviewing these data, EPA determined that risk to workers, occupational non-users (workers nearby but not in direct contact with this chemical), consumers, and bystanders drive the whole chemical determination of unreasonable risk. Risk from 60 out of 61 conditions of use, including manufacture (including import), processing, industrial and commercial use, consumer use and disposal, of PERC, drove the final revised whole chemical determination of unreasonable risk to human health.
Legacy of PERC Contamination
According to the Dry-cleaning and Laundry Institute International, there are approximately 30,000 drycleaners in the United States. A 2001 study by the State Coalition for the Remediation of Dry Cleaners (SCRD) estimated that as many as 75% of U.S. dry-cleaning facilities were contaminated. Environmental contamination at a dry cleaner site can occur from spills and leaks of solvent. For a time, the solvent used by over 90% of the dry-cleaning industry today was PERC. PERC is a dense non-aqueous phase liquid (DNAPL) and is heavier than water. As such, it can penetrate concrete and can sink through floor cracks. PERC may pose serious health hazards if exposure is not properly controlled. It is a listed hazardous substance and is classified as a pollutant in both air and water regulations. Other chlorinated solvents used in dry-cleaning operations include:
- Carbon tetrachloride,
- 1,2-Trichloro-1,2,2-trifluoroethane, and
- Trichloroethylene (TCE).
Petroleum solvents used in dry-cleaning operations include:
- White gasoline,
- Stoddard solvent,
- 140 flash solvents, and
- other high flash-point synthetic petroleum solvents.
More environmentally friendly types of solvents, such as carbon dioxide and silicon-based solvents, also have been introduced to move towards a greener, less toxic approach to dry cleaning. Historically, many drycleaners disposed of wastes containing solvents by pouring wastewater into sanitary sewers, septic tanks, storm sewers, and floor drains; throwing spent filters and sludge into the trash; or dumping wastewater on the ground outside their facilities. In addition to contamination associated with waste disposal, solvents have been released to the environment during solvent delivery, transfer, and storage and through dry-cleaning equipment operation and maintenance. These practices have resulted in widespread contamination of soil and groundwater and impacts on drinking water aquifers.
Phase II ESAs Are Prudent For Commercial Real Estate Deals
Earlier this year, EPA finalized their “All Appropriate Inquiry” (AAI) rule, that included the adoption of the 2021 Update to the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) standard practice for Phase I Environmental Site Assessments (E1527-21). The ASTM E1527-21 Standard defines what constitutes “good commercial and customary practice for conducting an environmental site assessment (ESA) of a parcel of commercial real estate in the U.S. with respect to the range of contaminants within the scope of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation & Liability (CERCLA) Act (42 U.S.C. 9601) and petroleum products.” As dry cleaners continue to close and morph into different commercial uses, a good quality, thorough Phase I ESA is essential for commercial real estate transactions. It could also be argued that with the findings of the 2001 SCRD study mentioned earlier, coupled with the EPA’s move to put greater emphasis on the subsurface intrusion pathway as part of the Hazard Ranking System (HRS), makes a Phase II ESA a wise decision for developers and bona fide prospective purchasers. More on this subject can be found in Part 2 of this PCE technical series in the coming months. If you want to discuss the risks related to dry-cleaning facilities please feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.