Eight hours a week for more than two years, parishioners of the Word of Faith church in Durham flocked to a makeshift sanctuary inside a rented building near downtown and gathered for fellowship, prayer and healing. What the churchgoers did not know at the time, state officials believe, is that while they celebrated and sang in praise, the air they breathed was contaminated with the vapors of a toxic dry cleaning solvent—a probable carcinogen—that had seeped into the ground for years.
Three decades before the church moved to 1103 W. Club Blvd. near Northgate Mall, the building housed a dry cleaning service, One Hour Martinizing, where workers labored over laundry using the chemical tetracholoroethylene, also known as perchloroethylene or perc, to expertly clean fine garments. Whether via accidental spills, negligent or unknowing workers or lax regulations on disposal, the solvent soaked into the grounds around the business and contaminated the soil and groundwater.
Now the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources has found the chemical also has spread at least 150 feet to homes on adjacent Dollar Avenue in the Trinity Park neighborhood. Vapors from perc in the groundwater have infiltrated at least two houses, and residents are fretting over the potential effects of the contamination on their community, property values and long-term health. Although the state has a 10-year-old program to help test and clean up perc-contaminated properties, its funding is limited and doesn't include help for residents who suffer health problems or financial losses associated with the chemical contamination.
Research cited by the federal government has linked exposure to high levels of perc, a nonflammable, stain-removing liquid, to liver and kidney damage. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the chemical "may reasonably be anticipated to be a carcinogen," or cancer-causing material. Most city residents don't get their water from private wells and thus are unlikely to be at risk for drinking water contaminated with perc. For them, the risk is in the air inside their own homes.
Laura Drey has lived in her Dollar Avenue home for 24 years, during which the contaminated building across from her backyard has hosted a BB&T bank, two clothiers and finally, the Word of Faith church. Over the past six months, state researchers have visited her house multiple times to conduct nearly a dozen tests on the soil, groundwater and air inside her home. Twice, the indoor air levels exceeded safe limits, said Billy Meyer, a DENR project manager overseeing the contamination at 1103 W. Club Blvd. Last week, Drey submitted her blood to a lab to determine how much perc is stored in her body and made an offer on a house across the city, where she hopes to escape any additional exposure.
"I have trouble sleeping. It's consumed my time, my thoughts," Drey said. Although the chemical is odorless, Drey knows it surrounds her as she lives and works from a home office in her two-story brick cottage. "It's impacted my personal life." She wonders whether the chemical or the stress it has caused are to blame for her dry cough, recent bouts of dizziness or even the pronounced stutter that has affected her speech since last summer.
The churchgoers, Drey and other neighbors are just a few of potentially thousands of residents across the state whose health could be at risk through their exposure to perc. In Durham County alone, the state has documented 14 sites (see list and map below) where perc has penetrated the soil and groundwater. The level of contamination varies, although no sites rival the urgency of the West Club Boulevard site, where groundwater levels were once documented at 70,000 parts per billion—100,000 times the state limit for groundwater.
The Durham sites range from the now defunct Weaver's Cleaners on Fayetteville Street, which operated until 2002 and is now for sale, to the site of a former dry cleaner on North Roxboro Road, which now operates as an animal hospital. Beyond Durham, contractors are probing contamination levels at roughly 230 sites across the state that at one time have hosted dry-cleaning services. And those numbers will likely grow.
There could be as many as 1,500 current and former dry cleaners in North Carolina where perc is leaching into the soil, groundwater and air inside people's homes and businesses, said Pete Doorn, a supervisor with the state who oversees cleanup efforts under the Dry Cleaning Solvent Cleanup Act (DSCA). However, that number could be higher, and the actual number is unknown, in part because the state's cleanup program is voluntary. The state doesn't look for sites that may be contaminated, Doorn said. Instead, business or property owners approach the state if they suspect their property is contaminated with perc.
If tests show that soil, groundwater, wells or other resources are contaminated with perc, the state starts planning a challenging and costly cleanup paid for by a fund established under the Dry Cleaning Solvent Cleanup Act. The state law, proposed to state lawmakers in the late 1990s by dry cleaners themselves, created a surcharge on perc and allotted a portion of state taxes on dry cleaning services to go to a cleanup fund. The fund brings in about $7.5 million a year, Doorn said. But with a current balance of $24 million, resources are thin when spread across the 230 contaminated sites. Additionally, regulations on the cleanup program allow the state to spend only $500,000 to $1 million per year on removing contaminants from a site. Based on national figures, an average cleanup costs $330,000.
With these stipulations, "we're not even going to get close to making sure these sites get cleaned up," said Sue Dayton, statewide coordinator of a program under the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League to ban perc use in dry cleaning services. In addition to concerns about funding, Dayton criticizes the fact that the state will clean contaminated groundwater only to minimum perc levels acceptable for groundwater—not to the level at which it would be safe to drink.
"We believe that the groundwater that has been contaminated should be cleaned, even though people aren't drinking the water," Dayton said. "At some point in the future, people may be drinking that water again. To continue to leave contamination in the environment is not acceptable."
Dayton has worked closely with Drey and her neighbors to keep them informed of the risks of perc contamination and their legal rights. Several attorneys and consultants recently appeared with Dayton at a meeting of the Trinity Park Neighborhood Association, including Mark Fogel, a renowned Triangle attorney who specializes in environmental law.
The law does not allow residents to hold One Hour Martinizing responsible for the perc contamination from more than 30 years ago, Fogel explained. But anyone who has owned the building in the past 10 years could be held accountable for damages, including the loss of property value, Fogel said.
"If you own property, even if you aren't responsible for the release [of the chemical], they can come after you," he said. Fogel is not representing any residents, he said, and no residents have taken any legal action against owners to recoup any losses.
Efforts to reach the building's out-of-state owner, Liduvina Garcia, were unsuccessful. It's unclear whether she disclosed to her church tenants that the building she leased to them was contaminated. Garcia purchased the building in 2007 from BB&T bank, which had already approached the state about contamination at the site.
In spring 2009, state tests showed that perc vapors inside the building posed an immediate risk to the health of the church congregation, and the City of Durham subsequently condemned the building, project manager Meyer said. Garcia has since been working with the state to plan a cleanup of the site, Doorn said. The building on her property has been appraised at $153,000, and the state's DSCA program will soon make an offer to Garcia to compensate her for the demolition of the structure, which will be necessary to address the contamination in the ground beneath it, Doorn said. When the state moves forward with the cleanup, BB&T Bank could be responsible for up to $20,000 of the cost because the bank petitioned the state DSCA program to clean up the site, Doorn said.
Any plans to dig up the contamination at the site must first go through a lengthy process of public input and revision before any action is taken, Doorn said, so several months could pass before any action is taken.
Like at the One Hour Martinizing site, which operated from 1963 to 1975, nearly all the perc contamination state officials are seeing occurred before the mid-1980s, when regulations on the handling and disposal of the chemical became stricter, Doorn said. Before then, the chemical could have been leaked from spills, faulty machinery and the improper disposal of water and filters used in the dry-cleaning process, he said.
At the time people didn't know about certain risks with perc like they do now, said Sto Fox, executive director of the N.C. Association of Launderers and Cleaners, a trade association that represents 150 member businesses across the state. It is credited for some of the momentum behind the Dry Cleaning Solvent Cleanup Act and the law's collective cleanup fund.
"I had no clue until I got involved in these kinds of issues ... that perchloroethylene passes through poured concrete at the molecular level," said Fox, whose father launched his family's Greensboro dry cleaning business just after World War II. "We weren't sloppy, but we were dealing with it the way the [Environmental Protection Agency] told us to. My father was college educated. He wasn't some country bumpkin out there, but he had no idea that we were dealing with a solvent that had these potential implications down the path."
Now, Fox said, stricter regulations have improved practices. He doesn't feel the chemical poses any risks to human health, and he challenges conclusions from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that have indicated perc poses a cancer risk.
"For crying out loud," Fox said. "We wouldn't be doing what we're doing if we thought there was a significant risk involved, that we were shortening our lives."
But many environmentalists say the chemical is dangerous and that North Carolina should follow states such as California, where a law enacted three years ago prohibited the installation of new dry cleaning machines that use perc and will completely phase out the chemical by 2023.
"By and large, the dry cleaning industry's mantra is that it's OK now to use perc because there's stricter rules," Dayton said. "It's incorrect and not based on fact. And they're not looking at the entire cycle—the making and manufacturing, from cradle to grave and what effects it has on people along the way. It absolutely needs to be banned."
Correction (Jan. 25, 2010): The print version of this story incorrectly stated who would be responsible for up to $20,000 of cleanup costs at the former BB&T Bank at 1103 W. Club Blvd. BB&T Bank, not the current owner of the building, would have to pay those costs because it petitioned the state DSCA program to clean up the site.