Dry cleaning solvent contamination may become a hurdle in construction projects

Perc contamination can be a big safety and liability issue in property renovation or new construction.

The Fayetteville Observer newspaper reported in June 2015 that construction of the North Carolina town's new bus transit hub is behind and over budget in part because before construction could begin, the state had required the city to remove soil containing dry cleaning solvent contamination.

The solvent, perchloroethylene, also known as tetrachloroethylene, or "perc" for short, is a clear, easily evaporated liquid solvent used to dry clean clothing and in some other commercial products and processes. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or EPA, perc is a toxic substance harmful to people, animals, aquatic life and plants, and classified as a hazardous waste and hazardous substance.

EPA reports that perc is a likely human carcinogen that can harm the nervous system, human development and reproduction; cause headaches, disorientation, nausea and tiredness; damage kidneys and liver; and irritate skin, eyes, noses and lungs. The level of harm depends on the intensity and length of exposure.

Despite advances in perc recycling, better seals on dry cleaning machines, and tight federal and state environmental regulation, it is not unusual for a current or former dry cleaning business site to have perc-contaminated soil, air or water, inside or out, even into surrounding buildings or attached businesses or apartments. Perc can seep into groundwater and evaporate into air.

DENR manages state-funded remediation and cleanup of perc-contaminated sites, which may be voluntarily entered by property owners and other responsible parties, if eligible. The state agency also supports dry cleaning owners and operators with inspection and education services to help them comply with perc-related environmental and safety laws.

As of June 2015, DENR lists 424 known or likely perc-contaminated sites in North Carolina. Unfortunately, many North Carolina hazardous waste sites - contaminated with perc or other dangerous chemicals - have been untouched and remain toxic due to a lack of public money and limited agency authority, according to wral.com, one of Raleigh's local news stations.

In the meantime, people and businesses involved in renovation and construction projects must carefully deal with perc contamination on their construction sites, not only from a physical safety standpoint, but also in light of potential legal responsibility and liability issues.

Persons who are considered "potentially responsible parties" on such projects can include a variety of people including dry cleaning business owners or operators; subsequent purchasers, lessors or lessees of contaminated property; landlords; developers; contractors and sub-contractors; architects; engineers; and real estate brokers, among others.

Anyone involved in such a construction project should retain legal counsel with experience in construction, development or renovation of property or buildings suspected to contain environmental contamination. A knowledgeable construction lawyer can advise such a client about legal requirements governing perc safety and cleanup, including the client's potential responsibility and how to deal with it.

Such a situation may involve negotiation with other responsible parties to develop a plan of action that includes necessary mitigation and division of costs, including involvement of public officials. An attorney can assist with negotiation as well as drafting or review of agreements and other documents like public filings and disclosures. A qualified environmental consultant is also a must on these types of projects.

A lawyer can also bring or defend an environmental lawsuit or represent a client in a lawsuit to recover cleanup costs in either Federal or State court depending on the nature of the contamination involved.

From Raleigh, the attorneys of Triangle Law Group represent clients throughout the State of North Carolina in real estate and other construction projects, including those which involve matters of environmental concern.

Keywords: perc, contamination, liability, renovation, construction, dry cleaning solvent, North Carolina, perchloroethylene, EPA, toxic substance, hazardous waste, DENR, remediation, cleanup, property owner, potentially responsible party, mitigation, costs