City nears the end of laundry lawsuit’s seven-year cycle

City budgets $1.22 million for its share of costs to clean up contamination in soil and water beneath Mission Linen building

VISALIA – After tumbling through court cases, mediation and insurance claims the city of Visalia is almost done with its seven-year Mission Linen lawsuit cycle.

The city is planning to spend $1.22 million to clean up contaminated soil below Mineral King Avenue between Santa Fe and Tipton Streets caused by chemicals used in the dry cleaning process. The money was part of the proposed 2-year wastewater capital budget, part of the city’s larger five-year capital improvement plan budget, reviewed by the Visalia City Council on Feb. 22. 

The cost of the project is being shared with Mission Linen which sued the city in 2015 after being cited for high levels of contamination in the groundwater below its property at 520 W. Mineral King Ave. by the Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC) in 2006 and 2010. The chemical, a chlorinated solvent known as Perchloroethylene (PCE), is discharged in dry cleaning and metal degreasing processes. It has been used since the 1940s, and has been found in at least five public water wells since 2007 according to the State Water Resources Control Board. At levels above 100-200 micrograms per liter (mg/L) in air, PCE may cause eye irritation and lightheadedness; above 400 can cause eye and nasal irritation, lack of coordination within 2 hours; over 1,500 mg/L can cause unconsciousness within 30 minutes. Prolonged exposure to PCE can cause cancer. 

According to court documents, samples taken from the water underneath the property showed a public health risk for PCE vapor. In response to the findings, Mission Linen was being charged with burdensome costs related to the investigation, removal, clean up and abatement of the chemical.

The city contends the contamination was caused due to waste from dry cleaning processes conducted at the facility over the course of 50 years. Laundry companies, including Mission, have dumped the chemical into the storm drain since dry cleaning began in 1937 until the practice was ceased in 1986. Mission Linen’s building has been used as a laundry facility since 1937 when Visalia Laundry & Dry Cleaning opened. Visalia Laundry operated there until 1971 when it sold the property to Star Laundry & Dry Cleaning. In 1978, Star sold the property and operations to Mission, where it continues to operate a linen and uniform cleaning service.

Star is no longer in business and there is no evidence that Visalia Laundry and Dry Cleaning used PCE at the Property. Mission discontinued dry cleaning operations and the handling and storage of PCE at the Property in 1983.

“The amount of PCE discharged from the Property, either through PCE-vapor or through the separator wastewater, is unknown,” the court ruled in 2020.

The case went to bench trial in December 2017 and a judge encouraged both sides to negotiate. When the parties were unable to settle the matter, the court split the responsibility and cost down the middle. On Feb. 5, 2019, a U.S. District Court ruled that Mission Linen Supply and the city of Visalia will share 50% of the responsibility and 50% of the future costs of the contamination.

In the judge’s findings, he said it is unlikely that the sanitary sewer lines leaked PCE but that the slope carrying storm water into the sewer was too flat and it could have backed up causing contamination. The judge said testing shows the city knew the level of PCE had exceeded drinking water standards of 5 micrograms per liter at least since 1989. In 1991, the Regional Water Quality Control Board informed the city that PCE contamination from sewers and dry-cleaning activities was a concern based on an incident in the city of Lodi. In 2005, the city’s own master plan identified the need for cleaning the sewer system but was never implemented. The judge also said there is no evidence the city authorized Mission and other laundry services to dump by-products from the dry cleaning process into the storm drain and that the companies were also responsible for any PCE vapor that would have settled in the area around the property and been washed into the storm drains by rainfall. The judge ordered the city and laundry company to split evenly the costs associated with the clean up of the soil and repairs to the sewer lines to prevent leaks. 

On March 4, 2020, the city council voted to appeal the judge’s ruling in closed session. In June 2020, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court decision to split the remediation costs.

The $1.22 million budgeted by the city for the project is in additional to $250,000 appropriated from the Wastewater Treatment fund in May 2021 for the first phase of the Mission Linen Soil Remediation Project. If the capital improvement plan is approved this June as part of the city’s budget process, that would bring the city’s share of the project to $1.47 million, the current estimate of the city’s half of the cost. 

However, because the project is the result of a court order, there is no specific remediation amount identified, but rather, the City must pay 50% of the actual cost. In reality, the project will only cost the city about $223,800 from its wastewater fund after receiving more than $1.2 million in insurance settlements from three separate companies to offset this cost of the court ordered clean up. 

In a separate but not unrelated move, the city appropriated $1.7 million from its WWT fund in February 2020 for the design and construction of necessary repairs to the sewer lines along Tipton Street and Mineral King Avenue, in compliance with a court order to comply with the requirements of the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC). This sewer line project is not part of the shared remediation cost. It is for the repair of sewer lines that are exclusively the responsibility of the city to operate and maintain.

The $1.7m budgeted for the project is not included in the remediation costs the city must split with Mission Linen.

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