AUBURN — A dry cleaner’s dirty legacy was discussed by state officials in a public forum at Webster School on Monday evening.

About a dozen local residents gathered in the auditorium to hear what progress has been made with recent chemical testing of the soil and air around Chestnut Street.

The chemicals the Maine Department of Environmental Protection is concerned about are tetrachloroethene (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PCE), DEP spokesperson Jessamine Logan said.

According to the DEP, those chemicals may affect the nervous system, immune system, liver, kidneys and lungs. Prolonged exposure has also been linked to cancer and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

The chemicals were discovered in ground and air samples taken around the site of the old Beal’s Dry Cleaning, currently the site of the 7 Chestnut St. apartment building built on the Beals foundation in 1987.

“We’re moving forward with the property owner to install a mitigation system at 7 Chestnut St.,” Logan said.

Logan said the chemicals are coming up through the soil as vapor into the building but may also travel along “utility corridors,” along sewer lines and water pipes. She likened the process to radon gas.

The Chestnut Street address was discovered after the chemical was discovered at the site of a dry cleaning business in Bangor. From there, the DEP sought to identify other possible users of these chemicals.

Logan said Beal’s Laundromat on Hampshire Street was approached but did not use the chemicals in question. For that, they said, Beal’s used the Chestnut building where the chemical was used, prompting testing.

“We’re trying to identify all of these former dry cleaner sites so we can do this kind of testing,” Logan said.

The difficulty throughout the process, Logan said, is identifying all the old businesses. Out of 200 locations identified, Logan said, only five needed testing.

Logan said, “The property owner pays for the cleanup cost.” Insurance or the possibility of locating the original polluter are then options for the property owner.

Tests were conducted on March 4. Logan said the results confirmed the need for further testing, which took place on March 20.

According to Logan, the day care downstairs in the Webster School has already been tested and found safe for children but test results are due within the next week for other areas.

While dry cleaners still use PCE in their process, Logan said it has become highly regulated with much more protective rules in place.

Remediation Division Manager David Wright said getting rid of the chemical vapor isn’t a quick process. Once special ventilation machines are put in place, “We’ve seen these systems go for several years,” Wright said.

Although cleanup is all on the property owner’s dime, Wright said systems are configured to be as energy efficient as possible and that the method used is quite the same as radon remediation.

Wright said so far three families had to be relocated due to elevated concentrations of chemical vapor in the air. He stressed that the levels did not indicate that people exposed would become sick but, after long-term exposure, they could have.

Further testing will continue in the neighborhood when the weather improves. Wright said frozen ground and excessive water in the ground are not conducive to the job they need to do.

Leslie Walleigh, an occupational health physician, addressed the risk of cancer from chemical exposure.

Walleigh said the general risk for any person to develop cancer in their lifetime is four in 10 chances. Against the natural rate, she said exposure risk to TCE and PCE in this situation at the highest concentrations they’ve found are “extremely low, much less than 1 percent.”

Webster Street resident Ron Smith voiced concerns about a lifetime spent in the neighborhood, saying he often played in the lot where the dry cleaner was located, digging in the dirt with the other boys. He described a clay-like material that never dried that “came out the side” of the building.

Wright said that it is possible the muddy matter he played with as a child may have been discarded lint material cleared out of filters and sent down the drain but that the material itself was possibly exposed to the chemical process.

Wright explained that experiences and memories such as Smith’s may assist the DEP in their efforts to isolate the contamination.

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