EPA Is Reconsidering Dry Cleaners' Use of Cancer-Causing Chemical

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Environmental Protection Agency is reconsidering whether to compel dry cleaners to phase out a cancer-causing chemical used in tens of thousands of operations nationwide, according to court documents filed late last week.

The issue of whether to ban perchloroethylene, a hazardous air pollutant linked to cancer and neurological damage, has been the source of a long-running fight between environmental groups and the federal government. In July 2006, the Bush administration ordered dry cleaners located in residential buildings to phase out the toxic solvent by 2020 but did not impose the same rules on the 28,000 other cleaners that do not operate in such mixed-use buildings. Instead, the EPA required these operators to use devices to detect leaks and to reduce emissions by conducting the wash and dry cycles in the same machine.

The Sierra Club challenged the rules in court, and on Friday the EPA asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to postpone arguments on the case so it could reconsider the regulations on policy and legal grounds.

EPA spokesman Dale Kemery said in an e-mail that the agency and the Justice Department made the request "so that the agency's new leadership may review the rule." He added that they asked the court to leave the 2006 rule in place while the review is under way.

Between 1996 and 2006, dry cleaners reduced emissions of perchloroethylene, also known as perc, from 25,000 tons to 10,000 tons a year by replacing older dry cleaning machines and improving their efficiency, according to EPA data.

California regulators have ordered the phaseout of perc from dry cleaning by 2023, prompting some operations to conduct "wet cleaning" that does not require the chemical solvent or to clean by compressing recycled carbon dioxide into a liquid cleaning fluid. In California, at least 125 cleaners exclusively use professional wet cleaning, and 10 cleaners use carbon dioxide. There are 4,500 dry cleaners in California.

The industry's trade association, the Drycleaning and Laundry Institute, could not be reached for comment yesterday, but dry cleaners have consistently said they need an extended phaseout period for perc because their machines are expensive and last an average of 15 years.

Earthjustice attorney Jim Pew, whose group is representing the Sierra Club in its case against the EPA, said he hopes the agency will decide at the end of its review to ban the toxin altogether from dry cleaning operations.

"The Obama administration has this great opportunity to eliminate this cancer risk for just about all Americans," Pew said, "and do it in a way that will not significantly impact dry cleaners."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company