The dry-cleaning industry has been hit hard by the popular passion for saving the environment. While some shop owners have undertaken expensive renovations to reduce pollution caused by toxic chemicals, others have been socked with huge cleanup fees. Now dry cleaners are complaining that they can't bear the costs alone. And one way or another, it's taxpayers who will have to bankroll the cost of being green.
In Colorado, where a House committee recently rejected an industry-sponsored bill aimed at limiting dry cleaners' liability in pollution cases, customers have already felt the pinch. Dependable Cleaners, the largest family-owned cleaner in the state, attached a 25-cent "Envirofee" to every invoice beginning last May. At least one other Front Range cleaner has done the same, and several others plan to follow suit.
"What it comes down to," says Dependable Cleaners spokeswoman Lisa Oleson, "is that we're being hit with extra environmental costs."
The dirty little secret for dry cleaners is the solvent perchloroethylene (known in the trade as "perc"), a toxic, carcinogenic chemical that has been used in the dry-cleaning process for decades. Before the Environmental Protection Agency and state health authorities drafted environmental regulations in the late Seventies and early Eighties, perc-contaminated water was sometimes poured down sewer pipes, or the chemical was stored in less-than-secure tanks, allowing it to seep into groundwater.
By law, dry cleaners must now take a myriad of precautions regarding the use, storage and disposal of perc. And under federal Superfund legislation, Colorado cleaners can even be forced to help pay for cleanup of landfills, property and groundwater contaminated by perc back when its indiscriminate disposal was perfectly legal.
Such "retroactive liability" is as popular within the dry-cleaning industry as axle grease on a white silk blouse. A comparable situation, says Heritage Cleaners' Fred Baker, "would be that it used to be legal to drive seventy miles per hour. Now the speed limit is fifty. And then somebody comes to you and says, `You were going seventy in 1962, and we're going to give you a ticket.' That's what they're doing to dry cleaners."
Some mom-and-pop cleaners in other states have found themselves embroiled in multimillion-dollar lawsuits aimed at assessing the amount of pollution their shop contributed to a Superfund site. Last fall the International Fabricare Institute (a trade group for the dry-cleaning industry) tried to add language to federal Superfund reauthorization legislation limiting cleaners' liability. When that effort failed, dry cleaners took the fight to thirty state legislatures.
Locally, the banner was carried by the Rocky Mountain Fabricare Association, which represents dry cleaners in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah. The Colorado proposal, if passed, would have established a self-imposed tax on the 448 cleaners that operate in the state. The money would have gone to a cleanup "response fund" administered by the state health department.
However, the dry cleaners' bill met with stiff opposition from all sides, including the Sierra Club and the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry (CACI). Says Fred Baker, "It was like kicking over an anthill or a beehive."
The snag was that, in return for establishing the environmental fund, the cleaners again demanded limited liability from lawsuits. If, for example, perc had leaked onto the property of an adjoining business, the owner of that business couldn't sue the cleaner--even if the site wasn't scheduled for cleanup by the health department for years to come.
"Other businesses would have been left holding the bag," says CACI lobbyist Stan Dempsey Jr. "Any other business would have had to rely upon the response fund, and it was unclear whether there would ever be enough money to take care of all the contaminated sites. Why give up the legal remedies we have for a new remedy that we don't know will work?"
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The Sierra Club based its objections on the fact that the cleaners planned to tax themselves on their use of perc--a proposal environmentalists feared would actually encourage use of the chemical. "The dry-cleaning industry is in transition," says Sandra Eid, legislative coordinator for the Sierra Club's Rocky Mountain chapter. "Obviously, the more perc they use, the more money they have to address their problems. It's a vicious cycle. How can you phase out the use of a chemical when that chemical is funding the program? If they did that, there wouldn't be enough money in the fund for cleanup."
Although the bill was killed even before it reached the House floor, Baker says he and his cohorts aren't ready to throw in the towel. Another effort is already afoot in Washington, D.C., to limit cleaners' liability. According to Baker, Colorado cleaners will wait to see how that goes over before trying again here.
In the meantime, Dependable Cleaners, which owns 23 stores along the Front Range, continues to collect its 25-cent "Envirofee," a charge Oleson says will be used only for environmental purposes such as disposing of perc-related hazardous wastes. Nu-Way Cleaners of Greeley has imposed a similar fee, and Baker says his company will soon tack on an environmental surcharge.
Whatever happens in the political arena, then, consumers are the ones who'll be hung out to dry. The cost of cleaning up after the cleaners, Oleson says, "has to be passed down. Just like any other business.