Kansas Environmental Officials Tackle Toxic Dry Cleaning Waste With Limited Resources
Dry cleaning can leave a really big mess behind.
One of the largest plumes of toxic dry cleaning waste ever discovered in Kansas is just south of Wichita, and state environmental officials are working to make sure people in the plume’s path have clean drinking water.
Robert Hephner’s small house in Haysville will soon be hooked up to the city water main.
“I’m excited because it’s going to be cleaner, better water," he says, "but on the flip side of it, now I got to pay a water bill."
"These are the same solvents used in metal degreasing."
A couple hundred homes in Hephner’s neighborhood are now being connected to city water. All of their private wells are contaminated with chemicals from a defunct dry cleaning facility nearby.
“You know, the well water around this area was already hard, so it wasn’t the best water anyway," Hephner says. "But, you know, I had some concerns because we’d been bathing in that water, we didn’t drink it, but we’ve been bathing in that water for 10 years.”
The solvents used to dry clean clothes include known carcinogens. The EPA has determined prolonged exposure, especially to chlorinated solvents, can lead to serious health problems.
“These are the same solvents used in metal degreasing and processes like that,” says Joe Dom, manager of the Bureau of Environmental Remediation for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
These days, Kansas has stricter environmental controls. But prior to 1995, dry cleaners generally just sent their waste water down the drain.
“And most people think, 'OK, it goes in the sewer system, I’m being safe. I’m not dumping it out the back door. It’s going to go to the wastewater treatment plant, get treated,'" Dom says. "Unfortunately, sewer systems leak."
Dom says if the contamination isn’t dealt with, neighborhoods, like in Haysville -- where a lot of chemicals have seeped into drinking wells -- can end up on the EPA’s list of superfund sites.
“Typically a lot of the dry cleaning sites in Kansas are smaller, but some of the larger ones would qualify for superfund action," he says. "And the industry and the Legislature wanted to discourage federal involvement so as not to apply that stigma to communities within Kansas.”
The contamination from the American Cleaners in Haysville, which closed in 1996, was originally reported to the state in 2011. But with the information environmental officials had at the time, it was placed low on the priority list.
Haysville resident Richard Morgan says he wishes officials had told him and his neighbors about it sooner.
“It’s funny how this all panned out because they knew about it years ago and yet we’re just now hearing about it within the last six months,” Morgan says as he watches the plumbers climb under his deck to replace the contaminated well hookup.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment is aware of 162 sites statewide with dry cleaning contamination. Sites that aren’t threatening drinking water are placed lower on the list. Many of the lower priority sites are in Johnson County, where almost all of the homes are already on city water.
Find Out If A Dry Cleaning Release Site Is Near You
The map shows a list of sites that have been accepted into the Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s Dry Cleaning Facility Release Trust Fund. The rankings and funding status on the map are from data received from the KDHE on December 21, 2017. The rankings are dynamic and prone to change so the information on the map may not reflect the present day standing of any particular site. The information only represents what the priority was on the day the information was sent (12/21/2017). KMUW's Stephan Bisaha culled the data and created the map.
Officials initially thought the Haysville site wasn’t threatening drinking water, either.
Then, in 2016, an evaluation of an unrelated site provided Dom and his team with information that the plume was spreading. But they thought it was flowing away from anybody’s water source.
“We took that information and made some assumptions," Dom says. "It turns out those assumptions were incorrect.”
The plume had actually moved toward the private water wells of a large portion of Haysville, but officials only discovered that in early 2017, when the current owner of the old American Cleaners site gave Dom’s team access to the inside of the building.
“We had to reevaluate the data that we then got and move from there," Dom says. "A lot of times we’re dealing with limited data to begin with so we’re trying to collect and interpret on the fly.”
Dom says their limited data is largely a factor of limited funds.
When the Legislature tightened regulations in 1995, it also set up a trust fund for cleanup fed by an environmental impact tax on dry cleaners. But with fewer people getting their clothes dry-cleaned, the fund only brings in about $900,000 a year, and large remediation efforts, like the one in Haysville, can cost millions of dollars.
“So we are trying to do the most we can with whatever limited funding we can get,” Dom says.
Most of these toxic plumes were created decades ago, but environmental officials are only stumbling onto them now. And even when they discover a new site, limited resources often keep state environmental officials from investigating how far the contamination goes.
Of the 162 dry cleaning waste sites on their list, they don't know how many could be another Haysville.
Brian Grimmett is an environment and energy reporter for KMUW’s Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. Follow him on Twitter @briangrimmett.
Coverage of energy and the environment is made possible in part by ITC Great Plains and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.