Laundry lawsuit to be aired in Court of Appeals

City Council appeals U.S. District Court decision that city pay half of the cost to remove contaminants from soil, water beneath Mission Linen building


VISALIA – No one likes their dirty laundry aired in court, but a bigger concern for the city of Visalia is the vapor left over after the laundry has been cleaned.

A four-year lawsuit between a laundry corporation and the city will continue in court for an undetermined amount of time after the Visalia City Council decided to appeal a decision by a federal judge over contamination found in the soil and groundwater.

In 2015, Mission Linen sued the city for a continuing public nuisance, equitable indemnity from liability, dangerous condition of public property, and for damages under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) for environmental contamination in the ground and groundwater below the laundry building. In the lawsuit, the laundry company claims that the city’s lack of maintenance on its sewer system allowed contaminants to build up in the system and leak into the soil and groundwater beneath the property until they exceeded the maximum contamination level set by the state.

On Sept. 8, 2006 and on Feb. 3, 2010, the Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC) issued imminent and substantial endangerment determinations warning that the property is located over groundwater contaminated with chlorinated solvents, primarily Perchloroethylene (PCE), also known as Tetrachloroethene, over the standard set by the state. According to the 2010 order, 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’s continued spread of contaminants is harmful to public health and to the environmental and, in particular, it disrupts Plaintiff’s reasonable free use of its property because it has directly caused Plaintiff to incur increased response costs,” the 2015 complaint stated.

PCE is a contaminant caused by discharges from dry cleaning operations and metal degreasing processes since the 1940s, according to the State Water Resources Control Board. The chemical has been found in at least five public water wells since 2007. 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.

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 it was ceased in 1986. Mission Linen’s laundry building, 520 E. Mineral King Ave., 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 case went to bench trial in December 2017 and 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.

At its March 4 meeting, the city council voted to appeal the judge’s ruling in closed session. The case will now be heard by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

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