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Cleanup continues on contaminated land across from Northgate Mall, but is it enough?

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The former dry cleaners at 1103 W. Club Blvd. in Durham is gone, demolished after years of false starts in cleaning up the chemical contamination there. But that doesn't mean the fight over it has ended.

"I would like the remedial action plan to be as thorough as possible, as thorough as it possibly can be," says Laura Drey, a one-time resident of the neighborhood. Problem is, says Drey, it won't be.

The site is contaminated with tetrachloroethylene, or PERC, a cancer-causing chemical found in solvents commonly used in the dry cleaning industry. The chemical had soaked into the ground around and underneath the building, leaching into the soil. State environmental studies indicate that the contamination has spread 150 feet from the building.

Last week, workers began the next stage of the state-run environmental remediation process, breaking up and removing asphalt at the location. But Drey remains worried that given the limited funds available, state officials opted for the more affordable but less effective cleanup strategy

She's not the only one who thinks so. "The bottom line is that they are trying to get out of that site with as little financial commitment as possible, as cheaply as possible," says Louis Zeller, executive director of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League. The chief source of the contamination—the building itself—has been removed, but Zeller says the state should do more.

To ensure that all of the contamination is removed, he says, the state will have to commit to more testing and, if necessary, the excavation of more dirt and debris. "But that's currently not on the table," Zeller says.

The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) cleanup plan includes the removal of an estimated 3,500 tons of contaminated soil and the injection of 11,500 pounds of a commercially made product, which breaks down the chemical when combined with water, into the soil.

Project manager Billy Meyer of DENR says that an application to inject the product is under review by the state's office of Underground Injection Control. DENR has spent $200,000 to purchase and demolish the building, which also housed a BB&T bank branch and a church. The agency spent an additional $500,000 to determine how far the contamination below the ground—known as a plume—had spread. But funding for the project is limited.

The passage of the Dry Cleaning Solvent Cleanup Act in 1997 created a tax on dry cleaners to help fund the cleanup of contaminated sites in the state. According to the DENR waste management division's October 2011 report, the fund balance is $12.9 million.

The average cleanup cost for a PERC-contaminated site is $300,000 Regulations cap the amount spent to clean up each project at $500,000.

Even without the financial limitations, more expensive remediation methods are "impractical," Meyer says. "But even if we knew if they would work, it would drain the fund so much that that it would affect the cleanup of other sites across the state," he says. Statewide, there are more than 330 documented sites, including 14 in Durham County, where the soil and groundwater have been tainted by PERC. "We would love to clean up every trace, but there are other people who need to be protected," Meyer says.

That's no comfort for Drey, who for 25 years, lived on Dollar Avenue, just feet from the site. Vapors from the chemical were found in two nearby homes; one of them was Drey's.

DENR researchers twice found that the air inside Drey's home exceeded safe limits for the chemical, and installed devices to monitor and block the contamination. Two years ago, Drey moved, but the state's cleanup fund doesn't cover expenses for residents whose homes have been contaminated.

"I don't know how long I was breathing contaminated air because I don't know how long it took PERC to migrate to my house," she says. "I just didn't want to be exposed any more."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Chemical reactions."

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