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Why Former Dry Cleaner Sites Can Provide Great Opportunity

There are countless former dry cleaner sites throughout the nation that remain in a state of toxicity and abandonment. These locations present a great opportunity for development for communities willing to take the effort to clean them up. There are currently programs in 14 states with the sole purpose of providing funding for dry cleaner site clean-up efforts.  For example, the Wisconsin DNR (Department of Natural Resources) runs the Dry Cleaner Environmental Response Fund (DERF). Programs like DERF have helped to drastically reduce the number of dry cleaning sites which use and/or are contaminated with Perchloroethylene (PERC). State governments without such programs often provide other means for the completion of dry cleaner remediation projects.
Recently, Fehr Graham completed a DERF funded project in Menasha, Wisconsin. This is an ideal example of the potential that abandoned dry cleaner sites possess.  The site was successfully rehabilitated at the request of Goodwill Industries NCW (North Central Wisconsin). At present, the site houses a Goodwill store boasting over 35,000 donations and nearly 120,000 customer transactions within this last year of operation alone. Once an enormous blight, it is now an altruistic asset to the community.

Former dry cleaner sites are ideal real estate for rehabilitation, but there are some underlying factors that must be taken into account when one is seriously considering such a project, namely, PERC. Perchloroethylene, also known as Perchloroethene, tetrachloroethylene, tetrachloroethene, PCE, or PERC, is a chlorinated solvent used primarily by the dry cleaning industry, but is also a key component of shoe polish, typewriter correction fluid, degreasers, auto paint, and electro plating.  PERC was once used by nearly all dry cleaners in the U.S., but in the last few decades, the use of the product as a cleaning solvent came into serious question. Even in low doses, PERC exposure can cause irritation of the skin, nose, and eyes, liver and kidney damage, dizziness, headaches, and even lead to neurological issues. Of even more concern is the fact that PERC is a confirmed carcinogen in animals and has been designated by the DHHS (Department of Health & Human Services) as a likely human carcinogen.

How Does This Happen?

PERC contamination poses a threat to the physical health and property value of nearby businesses and/or homeowners, as well as the environment, yet the use of Perchloroethene went largely unchecked for many years until it began showing up in groundwater. Groundwater contamination can occur as a result of leaky sanitary sewer lines or waste containers, but solvent may also seep through flooring within dry cleaning establishments. The end result, however, is the same either way; PERC is seeping into our soil, our groundwater, and potentially, our respiratory systems.

In its liquid form, PERC is denser than water, and, therefore, difficult to extract if it sinks beneath the groundwater. A classified Hazardous Air Pollutant (HAP), as well as an HVOC (Halogenated Volatile Organic Compound), PERC transfers into its gaseous form as soon as it comes into contact with air. Contaminated groundwater can seep into basements and foundations, and from there, PERC can evaporate into our breathing air, a phenomenon called vapor intrusion. Once PERC has evaporated and been released into the atmosphere, there is very little that can be done to contain it, so prevention is key. According to Ken Ebbott, Hydrogeologist and Project Manager of the Goodwill DERF site project, determining which method will be most effective in removing Perchloroethene from a site depends a lot on the state of the PERC itself.

What Can be Done?

PERC pollution is generally addressed in one of two ways; oxidation or chemical degradation. This depends if the PERC has begun to break down (chemical degradation) or remains intact (oxidation).

If the majority of the pollution is in the groundwater, it is much less difficult to treat, because any chemical agents added will mix easily with the water. Contamination found above the water table is significantly more difficult to address, as it is necessary to physically mix the compromised soil with the remedial chemicals in order for the treatment to be effective.

Hydrogeologist Jeff Ogden of Fehr Graham’s Freeport office remarks, “Complex chemistry and a delicate balance of conditions are necessary for a successful remediation, which makes it all appear quite ambiguous and intimidating to a business/land owner who has neither time nor money to spare. While there are various means of addressing the contamination dilemma, it is generally the time factor that will fluctuate rather than the cost.”

Ogden’s professional prognosis: “In summary, the most important thing you must do is address the contamination in soil above the water table (often times the actual source).  Once this piece is done, that is only half of the picture, as often times a significant quantity of contamination occurs below the water table.  This is easier to treat in the sense that there are more options available, but it is no less expensive.” Regardless of methodology or technologies utilized, companies or landowners looking into remediation of a dry cleaner site are confronted with prospective fees that range anywhere from $5,000 (for a preliminary site assessment) to upwards of $500,000 (for a complete groundwater and soil remediation).

Changes in the Industry

Perchloroethene is slowly but surely being replaced in the dry cleaning business, however, countless former dry cleaner sites throughout the nation remain in a state of abandonment. Often, it seems easier for landowners to leave the corrupted sites untouched, neither leasing them out nor dealing with the very serious contamination present. The regrettable truth of the matter is that PERC contamination, if not properly mitigated, is a landowner’s worst nightmare. Nonetheless, while treating contaminated land is costly and time-consuming, it can prove to be a rewarding investment.  The overall affordability and eventual profitability of potential projects is something that cannot be stressed enough; there is no reason to let chlorinated solvent contamination stand in the way of your community’s development and well-being. 

Fehr Graham can offer expertise and experience in every phase of your next remediation project, from site investigation to funding solutions. For more information, please contact:
Ken Ebbott, P.M., Hydrogeologist
Phone: (920) 980-4231
Email: kebbott@fehr-graham.com
Jeff Ogden, Hydrogeologist
Phone: (815) 541-0176
Email: jogden@fehr-graham.com

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