South Portland renews concern about contamination from dry cleaner

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SOUTH PORTLAND — For at least 25 years, a harmful chemical has existed in soil beneath and air around Pratt-Abbott Cleaners at Broadway and Cottage Road.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection recorded tetrachloroethylene contamination in the late 1980s and again in 2006, and led efforts to remediate part of the problem in 2008. 

The DEP notified former city staff in 1990 of the contamination, but information about the contamination and ongoing investigation only came to the attention of current city staff earlier this spring, when they were finalizing the Mill Creek Master Plan

Now, with the possibility of future construction on or near the property as the master plan is implemented, city staff – and nearby residents – are concerned about how the remaining contaminated soil will be removed.

‘Noisy’ contamination levels

In the mid-1960s the now white-washed Pratt-Abbott building at 489 Broadway was operated as a Coin-o-Matic Laundromat. David Machesney, Westbrook-based Pratt-Abbott’s owner and president, purchased the property in 1996, according to city tax records. 

The property is a little more than half an acre, half of which is paved, impervious surface. It abuts eight homes on Cottage Road and Parkside Terrace, a short, bucolic, dead-end street that separates the Pratt-Abbott land from Mill Creek. Three of those properties have also been purchased by Pratt-Abbott.

In May 2008, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection released results from a Hazardous Waste Management Inspection of the property.

It revealed that condensed steam from a waste-water evaporator unit on the outside of the building had been dripping liquid contaminated with tetrachloroethylene onto the ground for an unknown period of time. 

Tetrachloroethylene, also known as perchloroethylene – PCE or PERC for short – is a volatile organic compound used commonly by dry cleaners. It contaminates both liquid and air. Its use has largely declined in the last few decades, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, due to increased awareness of its harmful effects on the body. 

Symptoms from acute exposure to PERC-impacted air, according to a 2012 EPA study, include eye and respiratory irritation, kidney dysfunction, and neurological side effects – dizziness, headache, motor impairment and unconsciousness. 

Chronic exposure yields more serious neurological symptoms, such as cognitive and neuro-behavioral dysfunction, adverse reproductive health effects, and the potential for liver, kidney and blood damage.

In conjunction with the 2008 soil study on the Pratt-Abbott property, basement air samples were taken in the eight, nearby residences. Air samples were also taken at nearby Brown Elementary School and Holy Cross School, which were negative.

“Noisy baseline” levels of contamination were detected at six of the eight homes on Cottage Road and Parkside Terrace, according to the 2008 DEP analysis.

At two of those residences, 101 Cottage Road and 7 Parkside Terrace, the PERC-impacted air exceeded the Center for Disease Control’s indoor air guidelines of 4 micrograms per cubic meter.

Air samples from their basements showed 8.46 micrograms of PERC per cubic meter, an amount twice as high as the CDC’s indoor air guidelines.

At 101 Cottage Road, 30.5 micrograms per cubic meter were detected, 29.2 on the first floor and 26.1 on the second floor. 

Although in 1997 a Declaration of Restrictive Covenants was placed on four contaminated properties, including 101 Cottage Road, a family with two young children had been living in an apartment at 101 Cottage Road, according to a 2008 report by the St. Germain Associates environmental consulting group.

The full extent of the contamination effects were never fully determined, and only partial remediation was performed: Six cubic feet of contaminated soil on the Pratt-Abbott property was removed between the building and the sidewalk, but it was determined by the DEP and St. Germaine that the deeper contamination should remain in the soil because it would be agitated if further development or construction took place.

Pratt-Abbott paid a DEP penalty of $11,350.

“We ended up changing out our equipment and changing procedures,” and the case was “closed out (and) resolved completely,” Machesney said Wednesday. 

But there continued to be potential risks. The 2008 DEP report said PERC still existed in the soil, especially in areas more than a foot deep. 

“Future soil or ground disturbance by urban development or construction by homeowners or public utility crews could alter or create preferential pathways that ultimately increase the levels of PCE in indoor air,” the study said. “The source and extent of PCE soil gas contamination in this area has not been determined.”

Moreover, “it does appear that homes along Parkside Terrace have low levels of PCE (PERC) present in basement air levels,” according to the report. “Without additional sampling, it is impossible to determine the exact level of impact.”

Seven years later, city staff are just getting acquainted with the issue, and “residents continue to be worried,” Planning and Development Director Tex Haeuser said Monday. 

Questions unanswered

Noreen Vincent, of 3 Parkside Terrace, this week said the DEP’s final communications about the contamination were “very vague.” 

During the indoor air sampling of Vincent’s home, 1.56 micrograms of PERC per cubic meter were detected, which is below the CDC’s allowed amount. 

“We knew the soil and air was contaminated and that’s why they were doing testing,” but beyond that, “they weren’t very clear,” Vincent said Tuesday. 

“I would like to know (whether or not) it was mitigated,” she said.

Haeuser brought the issue to the attention of the City Council on June 22.

“This is a serious type of health risk that we’re talking about. There are folks living right next door, and they don’t know if there’s contamination or if their health is being compromised or not,” Haeuser said. “Something has to be done here.”

The only way to ensure the contamination at Pratt-Abbott and abutting properties is completely remediated, he said, will be through “redevelopment.”

The next step for the city is to determine how to partner with the DEP “to help get this cleaned up,” Haeuser said Monday. 

“Can we do more testing, more cleanup, what resources will it take, and to what extent?” Haeuser said. “Mainly we don’t want to let it sit for another decade.”

Pam Green, project manager for the DEP, said she plans to visit the area later this summer to complete another evaluation and determine whether more testing is needed.

“From what I see in the files, there’s no known (air) pathway, (but) there is known contamination in the soil,” Green said Wednesday. “There’s more investigation (that needs to be done).”

There is no evidence that PERC-impacted vapors are still getting into the homes, Green said, but “I don’t really know for sure.”

Depending on the extent of remaining cleanup, if there is any, finding funding for remediation could also be a challenge. 

City Manager Jim Gailey said the city has unsuccessfully applied for about $400,000 in federal Brownfield Cleanup Grants in recent years for general upkeep in the city, and for dealing with issues like the Pratt-Abbott contamination.

“At this point, we want to have the street and houses tested on (Pratt-Abbott’s) dime,” Vincent said. “It could very well be safe now, but we’d like to know that.”

Machesney said the case has been closed since 2008, and no further clean up is necessary. “They didn’t find anything that would indicate that any resident was (at risk of) harm at all,” he said.

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA

Sidebar Elements

Pratt-Abbott Cleaners on Broadway in South Portland can be seen from the backyards of homes on Parkside Terrace, near Mill Creek Park. Parkside residents and city staff want to know if soil and air contamination was fully mitigated.

South Portland Planning and Development Director Tex Haueser said redevelopment is the only way to ensure Parkside Terrace, near the intersection of Broadway and Cottage Road, is fully free of contaminants from the nearby Pratt-Abbott Cleaners.

South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.