PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – For decades, Oregon dry cleaning businesses have been contributing to a fund that helps cover the cost of cleaning up toxic chemicals. Now, business owners and environmental officials want to end it. 

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and many Oregon dry cleaners support House Bill 3273, which would bring an end to the Dry Cleaner Environmental Program by Jan. 1, 2024 and would prohibit the use of the chemicals perchloroethylene (perc.) and n-propyl bromide by Jan. 1, 2027.

The Dry Cleaner Environmental Program was established by the Oregon legislature in 1995 when the vast majority of Oregon’s dry cleaning businesses used perchloroethylene. The chemical is highly toxic and difficult and expensive to clean up. 

Environmental contamination can sometimes occur at dry cleaning sites from perchloroethylene spills or leaks. These chemical spills can contaminate soil and groundwater and can cost more than $1 million to clean up, sometimes exceeding the value of a dry cleaning business. 

The Dry Cleaner Environmental Program was meant to serve as a form of financial assistance for businesses if they ever needed to pay for a cleanup. Dry cleaners pay 1% of their revenue every year – and additional fees if they use perchloroethylene – to support the fund. 

However, the number of dry cleaning businesses operating in the state has been declining since 2001, and so has the amount of money in the Dry Cleaner Environmental Program. 

When it was established, the Oregon DEQ hoped it would collect about $1 million a year. The most it ever raised in a year was about $800,000 in 2005. 

In 2022, the program raised about $200,000 in revenue, only slightly more than the approximately $150,000 it costs the state to run the program and pay for administration and inspection costs. That leaves only about $50,000 for any potential cleanup. 

“The program is no longer financially viable,” said Ellie Brown, a senior policy analyst with the Oregon DEQ’s hazardous waste program. “Because the program can no longer pay for environmental cleanups at dry cleaner sites, it’s time to sunset the program.”  

The Oregon DEQ also feels the program is less necessary now than it was when it was established 28 years ago. Of Oregon’s approximately 150 dry cleaning businesses, only 25% of them still use perchloroethylene to clean clothing. Others have switched to hydrocarbon solvents, which aren’t nearly as toxic. 

HB 3273 would eventually ban the use of perchloroethylene and n-propyl bromide, which the Oregon DEQ said is not currently being used, but would be another toxic solvent dry cleaners could substitute for perchloroethylene without having to upgrade their equipment. 

If the bill passes, the remaining 30-some dry cleaners who still use perchloroethylene would have until 2027 to upgrade their equipment and begin using hydrocarbon solvents. 

The DEQ hopes the ban on these chemicals would mean dry cleaners wouldn’t need the Dry Cleaner Environmental Fund to clean up toxic spills. 

Some fear the end of the fund

Peter Yoo, chairman of the Korean American Dry Cleaners Association said in 2022, one member business shut down. When their landlord inspected the property, they discovered a chemical contamination and told the former business owner it was their responsibility to clean it up. 

The business owner called Yoo panicking, afraid the clean-up costs would bankrupt them. Yoo reassured them that the Dry Cleaner Environmental Program still existed and could help cover the cost, saving the business owner from the liability. 

Yoo is afraid more old contamination sites could be discovered in the future and businesses could be held responsible for the cleanup – without help from the state fund. 

He’d like to see some sort of state assistance exist if the Dry Cleaner Environmental Program sunsets. 

“If I go to the state legislature, I would say the state needs to help us,” Yoo said. “There needs to be something reliable for the clean-up program. 

Despite this, Yoo supports no longer being required to pay annual fees to the state. He said dry cleaning is not a lucrative business and, after the COVID-19 pandemic, fewer people are working in offices and wearing clothing that needs to be dry cleaned – meaning less business for the dry cleaners still operating.  

Yoo’s business in Portland does not use perchloroethylene. 

“We didn’t contaminate. We didn’t spill it, but we’ve still paid for it for more than 20 years,” he said. 

He’s not the only dry cleaner owner who supports sunsetting the program. Jay Bleich owns Bee Tailors and Cleaners in Portland and is a member of the Oregon Dry Cleaners Association. He said every year he writes a check and it feels like he’s throwing his money away. 

“In our case, we’ve never used hazardous solvents. And so, since the inception of the bill, we’ve just been taking a match to money; we’ve been throwing it in the garbage because we will never need a cleanup,” he said. 

Like Yoo, Bleich said there isn’t a lot of money in dry cleaning. He’s been trying to keep up with rising labor costs and rising rent and wants to see the additional fee go away. 

He believes the dry cleaners who still use perchloroethylene should invest in upgrading their equipment to use cleaner chemicals. 

Both Yoo and Bleich stress that their views are not representative of all dry cleaners in the state. 

How many Oregon dry cleaning businesses remain?

Although the Oregon DEQ earns revenue and pays to employ people through the program, Brown said the agency isn’t “in the business of making money… If the dry cleaner industry can’t support the program, then it can no longer function.”  

Some states that have banned the use of perchloroethylene, like Minnesota in 2021, created a reimbursement program to help businesses cover the cost of upgrading their equipment. 

The Oregon DEQ said its original legislative concept included a similar proposal, but it did not make it into the governor’s budget and is now not included in the House bill. 

The Oregon DEQ does not believe any cleanup would be required for hydrocarbon solvents, since they aren’t toxic like perchloroethylene. 

In 2005, when the Dry Cleaner Environmental Program collected its highest revenue ever, there were more than 325 dry cleaning businesses in the state. In 2022, there were fewer than 150. The number of businesses has declined sharply since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Since 1995, the Dry Cleaner Environmental Program has covered the cost of more than 400 compliance inspections, 50 cleanups, and raised more than $8.4 million. 

HB 3273 is sponsored by Democratic Rep. Pam Marsh, from Southern Jackson County. 

The House Committee on Climate, Energy and Environment is scheduled to discuss the bill again in a work session on March 8.