Did you know that when you pay for your dry cleaning a little of that money goes straight to a special fund to help clean up contamination?
The money has been collected for nearly two decades, but now the fund that’s supposed to help cleanup contamination is essentially empty. Dry cleaners wanted to know, “Who’s running the store?” They contacted the NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters.
Best Cleaners is a success story connected to Connecticut’s Dry Cleaning Remediation Fund, created 20 years ago with a one-percent surcharge dry cleaners must pay on their receipts.
“It has worked very well for us,” said owner Bill McCann. “We were into it early.” McCann said his business tapped almost $2 million of money from the fund to help clean 11 of his locations.
Land sitting underneath hundreds of dry cleaners across Connecticut – and thousands across the country, has been contaminated primarily by a solvent known as “perc,” or perchloroethylene, that dry cleaners say has fallen out of favor after decades of use.
“It was heavier than water, so when it escaped the plant, there were some bad habits that we used,” said McCann. “It would go into the water table, it would get into the water table, sink to the bottom and [form] a plume downstream.”
Catherine Smith, Commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Economic and Community Development, said the fund has been beneficial.
“We like the fact there’s a dry cleaning fund,” Smith said. “It’s been, I think, very helpful to a number of the dry cleaners in the state.”
Don’t count Gail Reiner on that list. Reiner said her family’s Hartford dry cleaning business has paid into the fund since its inception in 1995, and the fund let them down when they needed it most.
“We haven’t gotten answers,” Reiner said.
The family is in limbo because they want to sell the dry cleaning property but can’t do so until the land is decontaminated. The Reiners applied for assistance from the dry cleaning fund almost five years ago, and said they’re still waiting.
“We have been told there’s no money in the fund,” Reiner said. “We’ve been told they’re not taking any more new applicants. We’ve been told they don’t know when they’d get to us.”
According to the Department of Economic and Community Development, there are currently 21 dry cleaning sites approved for cleanups, with no money to start the process. Money coming into the fund is still paying for projects pushed through five years ago.
“We have our hands tied behind our back, if you will,” Smith said.
At one point, the Dry Cleaning Remediation Fund was collecting about $1 million per year in receipts. Dry cleaners and the DECD say the recession and fewer overall dry cleaning patrons have caused that figure to drop by a quarter.
Business owners, including McCann, said dry cleaning decontamination projects cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and ground testing alone can cost $150,000 per site.
Compounding the problem is the fact that, in 2009, the state swept $650,000, almost all the money raised for the remediation fund, into the state’s general fund to help plug a budget gap.
Smith said dry cleaners should talk to “a prior administration about where that money went and how it got spent.”
“I think even with that raid we’d still be behind because the demand and the requests for some of the funding way outstrips the amount of funding that is available,” Smith said.
Smith says other potential funding buckets for dry cleaners include Small Business Express grants and Brownfield Funds, which come in the form of a loan.
None of this pleases Gail Reiner. She said the state has not provided detailed information about whether all dry cleaners are contributing to the fund, what fines are being levied against those who are not, which sites are chosen for cleanups, in what order, and why.
“We need transparency. We need an audit. We need answers,” Reiner said.
According to the state, 535 dry cleaners are paying into the fund, and others have been penalized for failing to do so. But right now, it’s essentially an honor system, and there no state agency has a list of all the dry cleaners in Connecticut.
Connecticut is not the only state with a dry cleaning fund that has run out of money.
A coalition of dry cleaners from 13 states tells the Troubleshooters that in almost every one of those states, the funds to pay for the decontamination of dry cleaning sites are tapped out.