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EPA puts dry cleaners on notice and warns building owners and residents of chemical threat

By Kristine M. MacWilliams, PE, Technical Director-Subsurface Investigation, and
Douglas Newton, CPG, PG, National Client Manager, Partner Engineering and Science, Inc.

In New York City, it seems as though there is a dry cleaning facility on every block.  That may no longer be the case in 2020, however, when new regulations relating to the use of perchloroethylene (perc) go into effect.

Perchloroethylene, also known as perc, PCE, tetrachloroethene and tetrachloroethylene, is a solvent used in dry cleaning.  Approximately 28,000 U.S. dry cleaners use perc, which is the only air toxin emitted from the dry cleaning process. Perc is powerful, but it has been identified as a probable human carcinogen.


For this reason, it is a matter of significant concern to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has established many requirements surrounding its use.  These requirements are likely to have a particularly strong impact on the dry cleaning business in New York City.

What are the rules?   The EPA originally published requirements to reduce air pollution from perc dry cleaning facilities on September 22, 1993 (Air Toxics Standards for Dry Cleaners).  From 1993 to 2008, these rules were reviewed, amended, corrected and updated multiple times.  The amendments included a phase-out of perc use at dry cleaners located in residential buildings, and reduced perc emissions at other dry cleaners.

The rules affect three types of dry cleaners that use perc:

  • Major Area Sources – industrial and commercial dry cleaners that emit more than 10 tons per year of perc to the atmosphere
  • Large Area Sources and smaller Free-Standing “typical” dry cleaners – typical dry cleaners are the type of drycleaner you might see in a shopping center or as a stand-alone building. These dry cleaners are classified as “area sources”, which means that they emit less than 10 tons of perc each year. These smaller dry cleaners are regulated by emissions standards known as generally available control technology (GACT) standards, issued in 1993. There are about 28,000 typical dry cleaners in the United States.
  • Small Area Sources are small dry cleaners located in residential buildings. Facilities with dry-to-dry machines that have a capacity of less than 140 gallons are also considered small area sources. Like typical small dry cleaners, these co-residential cleaners are covered by the GACT standards.

What are the new requirements?  The most significant of the changes prohibits new perc dry cleaning machines from operating in residential buildings.  All perc dry cleaning machines installed in residential buildings before December 21, 2005 must stop operation by December 21, 2020.  Owners of residential buildings with perc dry cleaning machines will not be able to replace their existing perc machine with another perc machine.  Rather, they must switch to an alternative solvent or move the machine to a nonresidential building.


Any new dry cleaning machine in residential buildings that began operating between December 21, 2005 and July 13, 2006 must install equipment to aggressively control perc emissions (i.e., refrigerated condensers, carbon absorbers and vapor barriers). These facilities also must conduct weekly inspections to detect perc leaks, repair such leaks and maintain records. These sources must also eliminate perc use within three years after publication of this final rule in the Federal Register.

What do facility managers and property owners need to consider? Dry cleaning facilities located within a residential building will have to stop operations by December 2020 so that dry cleaning machines can be moved off-site and operators can switch to a solvent other than perc. Commercial landlords should be advised that even if your facility had been deemed compliant under the 2008 regulations, the current changes override those previously considered within the limits of compliance. Facility managers, too, will have to weigh the options of closing down the facility servicing their residents and evaluate the costs of changing machines and solvents. Changing machines may be worth the expense in order to keep current tenants.  Other important considerations are the negative impacts that the use of perc has already had the surrounding areas, including indoor air quality, soil and/or groundwater contamination.

Can they do this alone?  There is certainly a lot to consider. That is why some consultants specialize in navigating these new rules and regulations and ensuring compliance before 2020. An informed consultant can assist property owners with the phase-out and removal of their dry cleaning machines, evaluate the possibility of a release of dangerous chemicals and assess the potential impact to indoor air quality, soil or groundwater. If remediation is warranted, a professional engineer, geologist, hydrogeologist, soil scientist or other professional can help select the most effective remedial technology (or multiple technologies) for each site’s unique characteristics and the future use of the site. So, if you are a regular customer of dry cleaners in NYC, do not despair. There is hope on the horizon for clean clothes and clean air.

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