DTSC Set to Spend $200MM in Three Years on Dry Cleaning Sites Across California


The Challenge – Thousands of Leaking Dry-Cleaning Sites

Environmental remediation professionals judge human health risk from contamination using a simple concept: (Toxicity) x (Opportunity for Exposure) x (Sensitivity of Receptors) = Health Risk.  By that measure, it would be difficult to rival the magnitude and ubiquity of the health risk potentially caused by leaking dry cleaning chemicals in residential neighborhoods.  There is a dry cleaner in most towns, they usually aren’t far from residential areas, the chemicals easily evaporate into indoor spaces, and we spend more time in our homes than anywhere else.


That is the problem Rafat Abbasi, at the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), has been working on for years.  In September 2018, Rafat was asked to develop a State-wide policy for dry cleaners, and he quickly learned that the problem was bigger than he realized.  His team identified 7,500 dry cleaners in California that had likely used the chemical tetrachloroethene (PCE, or “Perc”) before its phase-out and estimated that up to 75% of them had spilled or leaked the chemical at some point during their operations.


Worse yet, many of the yet-to-be identified/addressed dry cleaners’ sites are in poorer communities of color close to homes and apartment buildings.


The Approach – Discovery & Enforcement

DTSC is eager to demonstrate to Californians that it can be a force for equitable environmental protection after widely publicized missteps (see Exide Battery Recycling Plant, for example) led to the 2015-2017 Independent Review Panel (SB 83) and their recommendations, which became the underpinning of SB 158.  Under the D&E initiative, Rafat has been tasked with the challenge of building two new teams of technical staff at DTSC, engaging with local communities, identifying high priority sites, awarding investigation and remediation contracts to qualified environmental remediation firms across the State, and overseeing the work.

Here are selected excerpts from my interview with him on October 17, 2022:


The D&E Initiative is a big undertaking – how did you get started?

Rafat: Building the initial list was a rigorous process of assembling, screening, and refining a database of sites exhibiting target criteria.  Those were dry cleaners and laundry facilities, in disadvantaged communities exhibiting the highest CalEnviroscreen scores [California’s environmental mapping database], proximity to sensitive receptors, and that were not actively undergoing cleanup.  The initial list targeted for the first phase of the initiative included 112 sites across Northern and Southern California.  [See the list of sites here: https://dtsc.ca.gov/discovery-and-enforcement/]


From there, we began building two technical oversight teams who would be tasked with making risk determinations, issuing orders for investigation, bringing property owners and responsible parties to the table, and engaging with the surrounding communities.


How will the $200MM be spent?

Rafat:  DTSC will fund its own staff; that is to say, none of the $200MM will be spent on oversight costs.  Instead, the money is allotted to award contracts to qualified companies that will perform Phase I reviews, Phase II investigations, and other tasks to support the program.  $155MM will be dedicated to investigating and compel owners and responsible parties to take action to clean up the sites at their expense.  The remaining $40MM will be used for the cleanup of so-called “orphan” sites where the responsible entity no longer exists or is unable to pay for cleanup.  Initial contracts have already been issued on some of the Sites identified.

The D&E teams have until June 2024 to issue contracts under the program and the money must be spent two years thereafter. 


What are some of the challenges with getting this program off the ground?

Rafat:  We are building new technical teams at a time when the necessary skill sets are in high demand.  The State is competing with firms like Murex to hire experts in the environmental field.  Second, there are performance metrics that were developed at the time the program was proposed.  We really need to show the legislature and the taxpayers of California that the intent of SB 158 is being fulfilled, so that the program will continue to be funded in future.  Lastly, we need to get our contracted investigation companies access onto these sites if they are to assess the risks to the surrounding communities.  That will take significant effort to accomplish.

Thank you to Rafat for the generous contribution of his time and for his efforts on this new California program!


Regulatory Relationships

Murex’s team leaders have forged mutually respectful relationships with senior members of the environmental regulatory community and work to strengthen the cooperation between practitioners and policy makers each year.  We strive to advocate on behalf of our clients using sound, technical expertise and state-of-the-practice methodologies that allow regulatory case managers and supervisors to have confidence in our work. Contact us today for a free, no-obligation consultation on the approach, progress, and plan for closure of your client’s site.

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