El Paso County Retirement Plan on the hook for shuttered dry cleaner’s mess

Author: Jakob Rodgers, The Gazette - March 17, 2018 - Updated: March 17, 2018

waterCredit: Security Water and Sanitation Districts

Nearly a decade ago, the owner of a southeast Colorado Springs dry cleaner admitted dumping water laced with likely carcinogens onto the parking lot outside his shop, where it seeped into the Widefield aquifer, state inspection records show.

Now, the Environmental Protection Agency wants his landlords to pay up.

The federal agency quietly reached a $420,000 settlement with the El Paso County Retirement Plan earlier this month to begin recouping more than $3.4 million the federal agency spent responding to the dry cleaner’s mess at the Mission Trace Shopping Center, and for decontaminating groundwater in nearby Security.

If approved by a federal district court judge, the settlement would mark the first known reimbursement check to the EPA for its cleanup efforts. And more litigation could be on the way.

Lisa McClain-Vanderpool, an EPA spokeswoman, said the agency is “still trying” to force other entities to pay for the cleanup.

Seeking reparations and reimbursements from property owners of hazardous spill sites is “standard practice” for the EPA, McClain said, and the case involving the now-defunct King’s One-Hour Cleaners is no different.

The EPA approached the retirement plan’s leaders last year seeking help paying for the cleanup.

“We were very surprised – obviously we hadn’t owned the property for almost 20 years,” said Tom Pfeifle, the retirement plan’s executive director.

A subsequent lawsuit filed by the EPA did not allege anyone employed by the county’s retirement plan knew of the toxic spills. Rather, it focused on the El Paso County Retirement Plan’s ownership of the shopping center from 1993 through 1997, and the four years it spent leasing space to the dry cleaner.

The proposed settlement is on hold, pending a 30-day public comment period that ends in early April. After that, a federal district court judge will decide whether to approve it.

Pfeifle downplayed any negative effects from the settlement on the plan, which has more than 4,000 enrollees and a total asset base of $385 million.

“It’s substantial, but it’s nothing we can’t overcome,” Pfeifle said.

The shopping center’s current owners, New Mission LLC, were stuck footing the bill for the state’s response. The company purchased Mission Trace in 2006, and was later told it was liable for the cost of the state’s corrective action.

“It’s terrible,” said Matt Craddock, New Mission’s manager. “The business owner should be responsible for the issues caused there, not innocent property owners.”

The spill marks the latest chapter in a decades-long run of water quality issues for the troubled Widefield aquifer – a key source of drinking water for thousands of people from Security to Fountain.

It centers around a chemical called perchloroethylene, otherwise known as PERC or PCE.

It’s the same chemical that fouled the area’s drinking water during the Schlage Lock Co. scandal decades ago, when a whistle-blower alerted health authorities that the company had dumped the chemical during the 1970s at its plant off Hancock Expressway, prompting a massive, decades-long cleanup.

Signs of the dry cleaning spill arose 15 years ago in one of Security Water and Sanitation Districts’ wells, according to the EPA’s lawsuit.

Within five years, the chemical exceeded the EPA’s limit in that well. And soon after, three other wells tested positive.

The EPA claimed in its lawsuit that a total of three wells tested above the EPA’s limit of 5 parts per billion from 2008 through 2010.

But Roy Heald, the water district’s general manager, countered that claim – saying only one well exceeded that level, and that it was shuttered prior to reaching the EPA’s limit.

State health officials later zeroed in on King’s One-Hour Dry Cleaner inside at South Academy Boulevard and Hancock Expressway. The cleaners used that chemical from at least 1986 through 2010, when the business closed, according to the EPA’s lawsuit.

The chemical – often used at dry cleaners – is a likely carcinogen that can travel through concrete. As a result, most spills don’t stop until they’ve reached underground aquifers.

A routine inspection by state health officials in 2009 found several issues at the dry cleaning shop – chief of those being the owner’s habit of emptying the separator water from his machines into the front parking lot.

“He didn’t apparently know any better,” said Carl Spreng, project manager for Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s hazardous materials and waste management division.

The dry cleaner’s owner, Jung Sin Kim, appears to have left the country after the state found him responsible for the contamination, Spreng said.

The state Health Department conducted soil and well water samples to make sure the King’s One-Hour Cleaners was the culprit. And in 2010, it placed the area under corrective action, Spreng said.

The EPA issued its own action memo in 2011, and it paid for the construction of an “air stripper” water treatment plant along the northern edge of Security. It was specially designed to rid drinking water of PCEs by exposing it to air – allowing the chemical to naturally disperse in the atmosphere.

The EPA transferred the facility to Security Water and Sanitation Districts after completing it in 2014, said Heald.

The plant powered down in early 2016 when the water district discovered a different set of toxic chemicals – perfluorinated compounds, or PFCs – in the aquifer. Those chemicals were used for decades in a firefighting foam at Peterson Air Force Base, as well as in a host of non-stick products, such as fast food wrappers, Teflon and carpet cleaners.

Those newly discovered chemicals can only be removed with different types of treatment systems, such as reverse osmosis.

Heald said his district is working to determine whether the shuttered plant could be incorporated into any new treatment system aimed at also removing the chemicals tied to the firefighting foam.

Even so, the worst of the dry-cleaning contamination appears to have passed.

With King’s One-Hour Cleaners having been shuttered for several years, levels of the dry cleaning chemical that it used have dropped below the EPA’s limit, Spreng said.

As a result, the state ended its response last fall, having deemed the contamination issue fixed.

All that’s left is the bill.

Jakob Rodgers, The Gazette

Jakob Rodgers, The Gazette