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Valley to clean up after dry cleaners

Cities around the Valley are wrestling with a legacy of environmental contamination: a chemical used for decades by dry cleaners.

Now suspected of causing cancer, the chemical has permeated underground water and soil. Cleanup is necessary, but expensive, and there's no easy way to pay for it.

In Visalia, federal and state environmental agencies, alerted by high levels of the chemical in drinking water wells, dug six test wells last month near existing and former dry-cleaning businesses. The Environmental Protection Agency and California's Department of Toxic Substances Control were hunting for a plume of perchlorethylene -- called PCE -- used as dry-cleaning fluid since 1934 that started turning up in Valley water wells in the 1970s.

Results are due this summer, but it's a foregone conclusion that any PCE found will be blamed on dry cleaners. A 1992 state study found that virtually all contaminated drinking water wells in the Valley had been fouled by dry cleaning fluid, including three in Visalia, two of which are now hooked to filters.

Visalia officials are watching with concern, fearing the city will get snared in a blame game and then be forced to launch expensive lawsuits against property owners, dry-cleaning businesses and others to collect money for cleanups -- also known as remediation.

"Cities are always worried about this," said Mike Olmos, Visalia's assistant city manager. "If they find contamination, you get into remediation and someone has to take responsibility. We're watching it carefully to see what they come up with."

Visalia should be worried, said Roland Stevens, the assistant city attorney of Modesto, which in 1997 sued dry cleaners, dry-cleaning equipment manufacturers, property owners and chemical companies because of well-water contamination. Figuring out who will pay for cleanup is the subject of a long-standing debate involving local, state and federal officials, dry cleaners, property owners and insurance companies.


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"We're concerned about state agencies trying to force us to clean up because they look for whatever deep pockets they can find," Stevens said.

Lodi residents -- including those who might never have had an article of clothing dry cleaned in their lives -- are helping pay for cleanup in that city through an $11-a-month charge on their local water bills.

The cost to clean up can be huge.

Modesto estimated it would cost $100 million to clean up its 30 sites.

After a 10 year-battle, the city won a $178 million judgment in 2007 against manufacturers and distributors of dry-cleaning equipment and a chemical company; the judgment was later reduced to $12.7 million, but the city has yet to collect because it's still tied up in court. The city collected $23.8 million from two chemical companies that settled.


Modesto's PCE contamination was discovered in 1984, and the cleanup began in 2000. So much PCE is in the soil around one dry-cleaning establishment that it's a federal Superfund site.

Modesto sued because of what happened in Turlock, Stevens said. Turlock was the first Valley city pressured by the state to do a major cleanup.

Turlock, which found PCE in 1989 at dry cleaners and industrial sites in its downtown, did not sue anyone. Instead, Turlock and the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board agreed the city would clean it up, with help from the state. The city has spent about $1 million so far but is just getting started; the regional board has reimbursed the city about $736,000 for cleanup costs, and the city still expects to spend an additional $459,000.


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