Practical strategies to overcome environmental challenges for owners and buyers of dry cleaners - by Stephen Graham

January 29, 2016 - Front Section
Stephen Graham, AEI  Consultants Stephen Graham, AEI

The modern dry cleaner may be a weekly stop for many people, especially in areas with uniformed workers and/or higher incomes. This frequent destination can drive business into a shopping center, especially those tenanted with other essential services, hence the persistence of this business which is often cash-based, low-profit, and family operated. Environmental challenges can arise to the owner or buyer of a shopping center or pad site with such a facility, due to the historical or current use of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) as the cleaning agent.  Improper operations may have spilled VOCs onto floor surfaces from dry cleaning machine (103) operations or stain removal by hand. If floor surfaces are cracked or other pathways to the environment exist, then soil, groundwater, and air vapor spaces beneath the building can be impacted. Contamination at higher amounts can sometimes require testing and cleanup up to $1 million or more, but most sites require far less, and many none at all.   

The VOC cleaning agent has changed over years, and since the 1950s was mostly a chlorinated type known as perchloroethylene, aka PCE or “perc.” In the 1990s, “green” solvents emerged, which are still VOCs, e.g. DF-2000 or EcoSolv, yet without chlorination. These are isoparrafins,  multi-chained, saturated petroleum distillates (naptha) which have lesser health risks to workers and the environment, but still have extensive regulations which have increased considerably in most states in the past decade or so. Specific challenges to the buyer or seller can include the following:

Environmental: If spill/leak occurs, then soil, groundwater (GW), and air media can be affected; impacted air often poses the biggest threat to human health, but GW costs most to clean; 

Environmental: Upon sale, buyer’s ASTM Phase I Environmental Site Assessment (ESA) will often recommend a Phase II ESA (subsurface and/or indoor air testing) if PCE used at any time in history; and 

• Real Estate: Affect rest of deal, since it can add much more legal and administrative effort, and even kill the sale. Note that proper environmental compliance paperwork and photographic documentation add weight to a favorable ESA.

So what are strategies to minimize risk to the existing and future buyer or seller? Our experience in auditing and/or relocating dozens of dry cleaners the past several years, and performing many hundreds of ESAs and cleanups at such sites, suggests prudent, pro-active steps by an owner would include:

• Whenever visiting the tenant/space, ideally monthly or so, spend 10 minutes to scan the “Compliance Calendar” checklists established in many states, which by law operators must conduct either weekly or monthly, for such aspects as proper machine operation, especially temperature or pressure; verifying absence of spills or leaks; tracking solvent use and disposal; and presence of “hazardous waste” signage, and machine operations and maintenance manual. Note that the compliance requirements are explained in several languages;   

• Whenever conducting the above visit, ask if a state or local agency has audited/visited the space, and what documentation resulted. We have seen too often that landlords were unaware their tenants had been fined or incurred administrative penalties or were under deadlines to improve operations;    

• Stipulate in lease or lease renewals, that non-chlorinated solvents only are used, with penalties applicable for lease violation;

• Perform annual formal reviews, or at least prior to sale, of compliance records (prior 12 months of compliance calendars), and verify operating certificate and permits for non-contact discharges, where applicable (air, sewer).

• Check for presence of any staining in machine area (compare to baseline photographs). Note that typically as “small” or “very small” generators, <2 drums of waste solvent can be kept onsite at a time. The presence of more than this amount is usually a key indicator that regulatory compliance is not current;   

• Keep flooring and joints between walls and floor impervious (epoxy or other coating, not just bare concrete), and repair cracks as needed. Ensure spaces with solvent spill potential do not drain directly to floor or outside drains/sewer inlets; and

• Where possible, move active dry cleaning operations out of a shopping center to off-site location, and convert to drop-off center only.

For buyers, request to see the above compliance calendar information as part of an ESA.

In the event an ASTM Phase II ESA is recommended, which can be limited to sub-flooring vapor, but may involve soil and groundwater sampling, it is important to understand that soil and groundwater have firm standards, but air testing results may be compared to regulatory guidelines in many jurisdictions. The difference is the level of effort needed to bring the comfort level of both buyer and seller to an agreeable risk position. For example, triggering a sub-flooring gas guideline may not mean remediation is needed, but further investigation usually is required.

This can include additional testing, including in the indoor spaces housing the dry cleaner, and adjacent tenants. Note that OSHA limits for dry cleaner spaces are magnitudes higher than for other tenants.

More testing can simply confirm there’s a problem. Then other strategies come into play: modeling and/or risk assessment, which can be straightforward and cost-effective ways to show that the actual risk to human health (air) and the environment (soil, groundwater) are within acceptable limits. Your environmental consultant should be able to clearly explain this process in under 10 minutes; then the steps to achieve this outcome can take a week or two, depending upon the site complexity, and assuming enough data is gathered first.

However, if modeling/risk assessment still shows there is VOC presence above acceptable levels (and note state requirements can vary widely, many have been implemented or updated in only the past 3-5 years), then subslab/indoor space mitigative measures will be needed, including depressurization systems, HVAC upgrades, and/or soil and groundwater cleanup. The latter should be the last approach taken to resolve VOC impacts.   

Stephen Graham, PE, LSP, is senior vice president of AEI Consultants, Boston, Mass.

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