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Dry cleaners' solvents taint Martinsville's water

November 3, 2012
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The dry cleaning industry’s use of environmentally hazardous solvents is declining, but the legacy of “perc” is an expensive one that will haunt cities such as Martinsville for decades.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently proposed placing the Morgan County seat on its Superfund priority list, citing groundwater contamination traced to several former dry cleaning shops in the heart of town.

plume-map.gifThe contamination forced the city’s water utility to install filtering equipment eight years ago. But as the groundwater contamination migrates toward the city’s water wells, the level of pollution is rising at a pace that will require Martinsville to tap a new well field within 10 years.

“It’s definitely one of the largest ones we’ve got,” Indiana Department of Environmental Management spokeswoman Amy Hartsock said of the contaminated Martinsville site, one of about 170 dry cleaner sites statewide in some phase of cleanup.

The upside is that the use of the hazardous chemicals appears to be declining and sites undergoing cleanup “are not going back to perc,” said Rick Armstrong, executive director of the Richmond-based Midwest Drycleaning and Laundry Association.

Others are winding down perc use as they opt for more efficient machines or as they change out old machines with new ones that use alternative solvents, Armstrong said.

The association estimates the percentage of cleaning operations using perc has fallen to 72 percent from roughly 95 percent five years ago. Those still using perc have adopted more environmentally friendly equipment and handling practices.

Many of the problems surfacing now stem from disposal practices of decades ago, when the hazards of the solvent weren’t fully appreciated.

Indianapolis has several contaminated sites, including a former Tuchman Cleaners at 4401 N. Keystone Ave. that closed in 2008.

Last month, the EPA began a “time critical” removal of contamination at the site. Workers will remove two feet of soil to prevent further contamination to the nearby Fall Creek Wellhead Protection Area. One well there had to be shut down because of dry cleaning chemicals that might have entered the soil as early as 1953.

As far as threats to an entire municipal water supply, however, Martinsville is believed to be the poster child.

The perc contamination level has risen fourfold since the charcoal filtering system’s installation in 2004, said Ross Holloway, engineer for the city.

Contamination levels at the wellhead now are so high that the city’s cash-strapped utility is replacing charcoal filters every 18 months. While tests have shown filtering does the job, four filters—each with 20,000 pounds of carbon—cost $150,000 to replace.

“The cost of treatment will soon outrun the cost of building a new well field,” Holloway said.

Under a settlement reached recently with the Indiana Office of Utility Consumer Counselor, Martinsville plans to raise water rates 40 percent to pay for upgrades, including preliminary work on a new pipeline connecting to a future well field. The increase will generate an additional $726,589 annually.

rop-dry-cleaners-hort-110512-bt-15col.jpg The soil under Martinsville's business district is contaminated with decades-old pollution from dry cleaning chemicals. (IBJ photo/Perry Reichanadter)

New wells will require additional funding to complete but some of the cost to ratepayers should be offset by the fact the new supply won’t require the extensive filtering now conducted for the dry cleaning chemicals.

Perc is short for perchloroethylene, but also is used to encompass other chlorinated solvents, including tetrachloroethylene (PCE), identified below Martinsville. Such chemicals are linked to cancer and liver damage.

The EPA and the state’s IDEM attributed the Martinsville problem to the Master Wear dry cleaning facility that operated from 1986 to 1991.

But state and EPA records identify five other former dry cleaners within a 40-acre zone extending from the center of the city to its northwestern edge. Some of those cleaners started operating as far back as the early 1950s.

“Although the Master Wear site was addressed, the level of PCE in the city’s drinking water supply has continued to increase,” IDEM Commissioner Tom Easterly said in a letter to the EPA that recommended Martinsville be added to the priority list of sites for remediation.

Other possible sources of contamination are a lumber company, a junkyard and a former truck repair garage. The presence of tetrachloroethylene in several monitoring wells around town “indicates that these facilities may be other sources that could be contributing to the groundwater plume in Martinsville,” an EPA document says.•

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