This dry cleaners doing things differently

September 18, 2018 GMT

MICHIGAN CITY — Over the last 40-50 years, there have been four Concord Custom Cleaners in the city, all of which released hazardous chemicals into the groundwater.

Dustin Keefe wants people to know that the one currently in operation is doing things differently.

“The difference between us and previous operators is PERC vs. petroleum,” Keefe said at the Concord dry cleaners at 3231 S. Franklin St.

“We use a product called EcoSolv. Like most dry cleaners today, we have moved away from PERC because there is a big difference.”

PERC, or perchloroethylene, was the solvent used by virtually the entire dry cleaning industry in the past. It’s also the chemical which, along with several compounds it breaks down into, has been found in groundwater beneath the four former Concord sites.

“The difference,” Keefe said, “is the weight. PERC is heavy and so it wants to sink down into the ground. Even water tries to do that. Petroleum is lighter than water so it is much harder for it to penetrate. It makes it much easier as an owner to handle.”

He said the petroleum product his dry cleaners use is biodegradable and “not classified as hazardous waste.”

“But we treat it as such,” he said. “Everything that comes out of the machine is put into barrels and disposed of by a certified company.”

There are even monitors built into the floor to “alert us to spills or problems,” he said.

Begley Company, the Kentucky-based firm that owned all of the former Concord sites in the city, was “actually a very responsible company that paid for certified waste removal,” Keefe said.

The problem is Begley “bought those dry cleaners from other companies and that can be dangerous. They bought a lot of different dry cleaners with a lot of different names, and began operating them responsibly. But when you buy existing sites, there’s risk in that.”

The company at one point owned more than 150 dry cleaners in several states, but now owns businesses only in Kentucky and Ohio.

Keefe said he “can’t address what went on 30 or more years ago – I was in middle school – but I learned from Begley to be responsible with waste from the machines. I don’t know what those previous companies did or if they even exist anymore.”

Begley is being sued by the city for cleanup costs of the most-recently-discovered site, a large plume of PERC-contaminated groundwater which begins at 10th Street and Michigan Boulevard, and is moving north-northwest through a residential area toward Trail Creek.

Solvents are used in the dry cleaning industry basically in place of water, said Keefe, who’s been in the business since working part-time before college.

The Niles, Michigan, resident went on to work for Begley as a regional manager for dry cleaners in South Bend, Michigan City, Valparaiso, Niles and Illinois.

In 2014 he bought the site on Franklin – just north of the former Concord site, which was located where CVS is now. He bought the business from Begley along with locations in La Porte, Niles, Granger, South Bend and Valparaiso.

When garments are brought to the Michigan City store – clothing from the other Concords he owns are also brought here – they are first inspected and then placed into large machines.

“It’s like a large washer-dryer with no water,” Keefe said. “We use solvents to dissolve dirt and stains, then extract it. The clothes are heated so the solvent evaporates, and then it is condensed back into a liquid. The clothes go in dry and come out dry.”

Everything is done in Michigan City to cut costs, he said.

“Dry cleaners used to operate on a business model where each was a small package plant that did everything. Now they are satellites, so all processing is done in one spot. It allows for better management with no redundancies in utilities, labor and overhead.

“We take everything and push it through here so it reduces the size of our footprint.”

That’s important in a business nowhere near as strong as in the past.

“Dry cleaners have especially been hurt by casual wear,” Keefe said. “People just don’t dress up as much anymore. Even businesses are going more casual.

“For Baby Boomers, dry cleaning was a part of their diet, but Millennials don’t have the money for it, or the wardrobes. It’s tough on the whole industry and a lot of dry cleaners have gone out of business.”

Recent news about chemicals found in groundwater under former Concord sites hasn’t seemed to affect the business, which employs 18-20 people depending on the season.

“We haven’t noticed any drop in business, but I have talked to all the employees about what to say if people have questions about PERC and operating procedures,” Keefe said, “I tell them No. 1 – we don’t use PERC; and No. 2 – we are diligent in our chemical handling procedures.

“We all have to live here,” he said, “so we want to take care of the place.”

Concord concerns

According to the Todd Relue, an attorney from Plews Shadley Racher & Braun LLP who is representing Michigan City, there have been four previous Concord Custom Cleaners site in Michigan CIty, and all left contaminants in the groundwater.

• 3235 S. Franklin St. – Begley removed soil from the site and is cleaning the polluted groundwater under a Voluntary Remediation Work Plan. The contaminated plume has moved under Franklin Street, under two lots and to the northeast toward Euclid.

IDEM has approved a remediation plan using chemical injection. Homes in the area were tested for vapor contamination, but none was found. The Concord Cleaners now in operation at 3231 S. Franklin was not the source of the contamination.

• 2321 E. Michigan Blvd. – Begley has tested the water, and IDEM has asked them to do more testing.

• 1002 S. Franklin – Begley has been notified of problems by the city, but has not responded.

• 10th Street and Michigan Boulevard – Begley has been notified of problems, but has not responded to a lawsuit by the city. IDEM has called for more testing of the site, and the city is testing homes in the area for vapor intrusion; and monitoring the groundwater.