Monday, February 20, 2023

Cleaning Up Cleaners

by Monica Groth, curator

Brownfields are defined by the EPA as areas “complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant.” The term was coined in 1978 as part of a growing government effort to identify and remediate highly polluted property. Pollution, often the result of industrial development, can linger in soil and groundwater decades after businesses close and properties change hands. Dangerous contaminants can affect the health of future residents.

Because of Elmira’s long history of supporting heavy industry, the county is home to many brownfields. Some, identified by New York State on the map below, are well-known. They include factory sites like Kennedy Valve and Westinghouse Co. as well as old oil fields and landfills. One of the most famous brownfield sites in the county is Elmira High School, on the city’s Southside, where the former Sperry/Remington Rand factory once sat. Most recently, efforts to remove contamination from the Old Elmira Gasworks has been ongoing on East Water Street.

Map of Chemung County brownfields being remediated under
New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation

However, in looking at this map, we were interested to discover that a large number of sites containing hazardous wastes fell into another category entirely. Seven are dry cleaners.

Before individual homes had machines, industrial laundries and dry cleaners handled community laundry at large facilities like Perfect Laundry, pictured below.

Workers wash clothes at Perfect Laundry in Elmira, c. 1920s

The process of “dry” cleaning utilized petro-chemical based solvents to remove stains without the use of water. Dry cleaning advertisements begin to appear in the Elmira Gazette & Free Press in 1896. In the 19th century, dry cleaners washed clothes in open vats filled with gasoline, kerosene, or turpentine. However, such chemicals are highly flammable. By the 1900s, especially as machines began to be used in the dry cleaning business, less-flammable chemicals were experimented with as cleaners.

Ledger Book from Ruddick's Dry Cleaning, Elmira, c. 1915

By the 1940s, tetrachloroethylene, also known as perchloroethylene - or “perc” for short - was the most popular solvent. An estimated 1 million metric tons of perc was produced worldwide in 1985.

Ad for C & K dry cleaning, 1953
C & K Laundry and Dry Cleaning in the old Robinson building, c. 1970

Perc has been listed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) as a “potential occupational carcinogen.” The process of legally listing substances as carcinogenic, or cancer-causing, is complicated and requires long-term studies and tested scientific data. Different agencies with different interests assess carcinogenicity differently. The National Toxicology Program deemed perc “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) designated perc as a “probable human carcinogen.” The EPA assessed perc to “likely be carcinogenic to humans” and updated its assessment of the chemical in 2022 by determining it “presents unreasonable risk to human health.” Today, perc dip tanks and transfer equipment is prohibited at dry cleaning facilities, and no perc is allowed to be used in residential buildings. However, the chemical is still legal and pollution from previous decades lingers in soil and water long after businesses close or regulations change.

Sites listed on the above map are undergoing remediation so they can be cleaned and available for future development. In a 2008 survey in the Star-Gazette, 67% of the surveyed thought safely remediating brownfields would help economic growth in the area. In 2017, there were 8 sites in Chemung County listed by the DEC as “Class 2” meaning they posed a “present foreseeable, significant threat” to the environment. Two Elmira dry cleaners were classified as Class 2 sites. The site of the former Diamond Cleaners, which was occupied by multiple dry cleaner businesses from 1950 to 2001, was remediated in the early 2000s by the removal of 600 tons of perc-contaminated soil. A plume of perc-contaminated water was identified heading toward the Chemung River from Castle Cleaners around 2017, and $2.1 million was proposed to treat it.

Invoice from Diamond Cleaners, 1994

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