When a soil test revealed a potentially carcinogenic chemical had seeped into the ground beneath his dry-cleaning store, the cleanup set Thomas De Pippo back $200,000.
After that, De Pippo began using an environment-friendly "wet cleaning" system instead of using the toxic solvent perchloroethylene. On Thursday, the market for such "green" technologies got a boost when California enacted the nation's first statewide ban of perchloroethylene by 2023.
"It cost me my entire life savings, my marriage," De Pippo recalled of the cleanup at his Orange County store, "Julie's Cleaners."
De Pippo is among thousands of dry cleaners across the country who are turning to such environmentally friendly options.
The regulation by the California Air Resources Board begins to phase out the use of perchloroethylene next year, banning dry cleaners from buying machines that rely on the solvent that state officials have said causes a variety of cancers.
The state's 3,400 dry cleaners who now use it must get rid of machines that are 15 years or older by July 2010.
"That's the wave of the future -- nontoxic, non-smog forming" said Annette Kondo, spokeswoman for the Coalition for Clean Air, a California environmental group. "We think this is going to ripple down to other states across the country."
Environmental and health advocates embraced the new rule, though they had urged the air board to accelerate the ban because of the chemical's health effects as a potential carcinogen. The solvent has contaminated one in 10 wells in California.
But cleaners say the ban threatens to drive some of them out of business because alternative methods are unproven and more costly. An estimated 70 percent of the state's dry cleaners use the solvent.
"It could shut down some mom-and-pop operations -- the little guys that can't afford it," said Bob Blackburn, president of the California Cleaners Association.
The cost of converting could be significant for dry cleaners, 85 percent of which are small businesses with slim profit margins. Replacing a machine that uses perchloroethylene can cost between $41,500 and $175,000.
The air board estimates that the additional expense of the new equipment will boost a customer's $15 bill between $1.20 to $1.60.
What alternative should be allowed in California is still under debate. Dry cleaners who switched to other systems sought to sway the board in favor of their preference.
Although the air board did not endorse a substitute, the regulation would give cleaners a $10,000 incentive to buy a machine that uses a wet cleaning system, which use carbon dioxide.
Environmentalists urged the board to ban the most common alternative, which uses hydrocarbons. Critics said it could lead to increased ozone pollution.
The board's vote follows similar action five years ago by the South Coast Air Quality Management District in Southern California. That agency became the first regulatory body in the country to ban perchloroethylene, forcing more than 2,000 dry cleaners to stop using the chemical by 2020.
Last year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned the chemical for dry cleaners located in residential buildings nationwide by 2020. But those operations are a small fraction of the nation's cleaners, said Jon Meijer, vice president of the International Fabricare Institute, an industry association based in Maryland.
California declared perchloroethylene a toxic chemical in 1991. State health officials told the air board Thursday that it can cause esophageal cancer, lymphoma, cervical and bladder cancer. The solvent, which has a strong, sweet odor, also can affect the central nervous system.
Some business owners disputed those claims.
Story courtesy of the Associated Press.