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Washoe water officials could ban toxic solvent

By Jeff DeLong • jdelong@rgj.com • February 17, 2009

Future efforts to control groundwater pollution from a toxic solvent, including a possible ban in Washoe County, will be discussed Thursday by the area's largest water purveyor.

Directors of the Truckee Meadows Water Authority will be updated on a program to deal with the spread of underground plumes of perchloroethylene, or PCE, a degreaser still used by many dry cleaners in the area.

"It is the single most important groundwater issue we face in this community. Are we doing everything that is appropriate to address it?" said Paul Miller, manager of operations and water quality for the utility. Miller said "all options are on the table," including a PCE ban similar to those enacted statewide in California and New Jersey.

The substance, linked to several types of cancer and other human health conditions after long-term exposure, started showing up in drinking water wells in the Truckee Meadows in the 1980s. Groundwater contamination was confirmed by the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection in 1994.

Five of the water authority's groundwater wells are tainted by PCE, with "hits" of the substance found in a couple of others, Miller said. The utility is able to remove the substance from drinking water by costly treatment. Since 1995, 58,800 acre-feet of water, or 19.2 billion gallons, has been treated for PCE at a cost of about $17.5 million, said Chris Benedict, manager of a Washoe County program established in 1995 to deal with the situation.

Much of the problem relates to practices many years ago, when PCE was used to degrease auto parts and was often then dumped down the drain or on the ground. The toxic substance has migrated into the groundwater aquifer, with six plumes of contamination identified in the central Truckee Meadows.

Experts are now studying four particular "hot spots" of contamination -- downtown Sparks, Mill/Kietzke in Reno, Vassar/East Plumb in Reno and West Fourth Street in Reno.

As recently as 2001, officials found suspiciously high levels of PCE in the sewer system that officials suspected was caused by the deliberate and illegal discharge of solvents into the sewer by some dry cleaners. Once in a sewer, PCE can seep from the line and mix with groundwater.

Benedict said he doubts any deliberate discharges are still occurring but the substance continues to make its way into the sewers nonetheless. It only takes about two teaspoons of PCE to contaminate 1 million gallons of water, Benedict said.

"Is it more cost effective to treat the water or fix the problem?" Benedict asks. "I think the question becomes: Can we confidently say we can eliminate PCE releases into the environment? There's always the human element. We can't engineer that out."

There are alternatives to the use of PCE for dry cleaners, making a ban of the solvent a potentially reasonable move, Benedict said. He estimated that of about 40 dry cleaners in the Reno-Sparks area, the majority still use the chemical. Between four and six use alternative technology, he said.

"Something like a PCE ban might ultimately be a practical solution," Benedict said.

Such an action would come at a significant cost to the region's dry cleaning industry, said Kevin Leid, vice president of Bobby Page's Dry Cleaners & Shirt Laundry, which operates more than a dozen stores across the Truckee Meadows, in Carson City, Lake Tahoe, Gardnerville and Dayton.

"It would affect us pretty badly," Leid said, adding that he knows several out-of-state dry cleaner operators who will go out of business once California's phased ban of PCE is fully in place. "How far do you want to take it, and to what degree do you want to have an impact on business, especially now in a poor economy?" Leid said.

PCE is still by far the most effective dry-cleaning agent available, Leid said, adding that a ban would hurt the industry and the quality of cleaning available to customers. "The alternatives aren't really out there yet," Leid said. "(PCE) just works the best." Leid said his business uses an "air-tight, self-contained" system that prevents any release of PCE into the environment. "If it's properly handled, it's a clean process. It shouldn't be a problem," Leid said.

But Norm Davis, owner of the Peerless Cleaners and a "green" certified operation, said there are less toxic solvents that can be used. He uses Eco-Solv and said another popular alternative is DF-2000, an Exxon product.

"It all depends on perspective," Davis said. "If you go to Treehugger.com or the Greenpeace Web site, they pretty much say (the alternatives) are slightly better than (PCE)." But both are hydrocarbon- and petroleum-based, which the Green Cleaners Council does not list as "organic" or totally environment friendly.

The council evaluates recycling hangers, whether a cleaner uses recyclable bags, water use, electricity, delivery vehicles, alternative energy and pipe insulation.

In eight years of business, All Clean on site cleaners has not used PCE, said owner Lori Baier. "It's just so toxic, and I really don't want any of our customers around it," said Baier, who noted that her service cleans drapes, furniture and fabrics in clients homes with the Exxon product.

Mike Carrigan, the Sparks councilman who chairs the Truckee Meadows Water Authority board of directors, said the situation posed by PCE is troubling.

"Even with all the regulations, it's still a problem. Maybe it should be banned altogether," Carrigan said. But he doesn't want to take any action harming area businesses.

"I know (PCE) is bad, but we don't want to put dry cleaners out of business," Carrigan said. "We have to look at both sides."

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