Monday, Sept. 29, 2008 | 2 a.m.
A massive plume of pollution under acres of homes, roads and a golf course in central Las Vegas is the worst of 28 sites in the valley contaminated by the same chemical.
At some point, someone winds up footing the bill for cleaning up those sites, and the Las Vegas National Golf Club case is turning out to be a local test of federal regulations outlining who pays when the polluter has filed for bankruptcy protection. In this case, the party in bankruptcy court is Al Phillips the Cleaner.
The gas-like mass of perchloroethylene, PCE, also known as tetrachloroethylene, or TCE, is emblematic of the intersection of older, less regulated Vegas — indeed, the entire nation — with a world of science that discovers dangers in commonplace practices of years past.
The “Maryland Square site” — the name given to the golf course plume of the potential carcinogen by the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection — is also the starting point from which to examine a list of PCE-contaminations pockmarking the Las Vegas Valley.
The sites identified by the Nevada Environmental Protection Division include two at Nellis Air Force Base, three at casinos and 19 at current or former dry cleaning businesses.
The chemical is widely used for metal degreasing as well as for dry cleaning fabrics. Inhalation of its fumes can cause neurological, liver and kidney problems, according to the EPA. Studies have found that prolonged exposure increases the risk of cancer. The EPA is currently reassessing its potential carcinogenicity.
Perchloroethylene remains in use in the dry cleaning industry, though other solvents with less harmful effects are also being used. Dry cleaners are now asked to take special precautions against site contamination to prevent PCE from getting into drinking water. In 1991, California declared perchloroethylene a toxic chemical, and its use will become illegal in that state in 2023.
Dante Pistone, public information officer for the state environmental protection agency, said the degree of contamination of most local sites other than Maryland Square is “minimal.” But six of those are considered serious enough to be in the various stages of a remediation process.
Those six sites are another Al Phillips location at 3754 E. Desert Inn Road; Cantrell Cleaners, 1015 E. Charleston Blvd.; Las Vegas Hilton/Convention Center, 3000 S. Paradise Road; Regency Dry Cleaners, 4575 S. Procyon St.; Ultra 1 Day Cleaners, 316 S. Decatur Blvd., and Vogue Cleaners, 550 S. Decatur Blvd.
“None of the sites even approach the magnitude of the Maryland Square site in terms of cleanup,” Pistone said.
He also said using the word “toxic” to describe the pollution is “alarmist.”
“The concentrations we’re talking about are such that they’re not acute at all,” he said, adding that the ground water contamination is 10 to 20 feet below the surface, “and shallow ground water doesn’t affect anybody.”
More worrisome, however, are the vapors from PCE that “can come up through the soil and potentially get into some of these houses” or other buildings that sit atop contaminated land, Pistone added.
The Maryland Square site is large and sweeps east from a former Al Phillips the Cleaner business at 3661 Maryland Parkway, north of Twain Avenue and west of the Boulevard Mall. The building that housed the dry cleaning business was demolished in 2006.
Pistone said the NDEP is not sure how PCE, a chemical used in the dry-cleaning process, leached or leaked from the site. He added that the number of sites of contamination in Las Vegas is hardly unique in the nation.
“It’s fairly common across the country,” he said. “There weren’t very tight operating procedures in the past,” so most, if not all, of the sites were contaminated years ago.
Two things about the Maryland Square site, however, distinguish it from the others. For one, a large contingent of concerned residents have hopes that, ironically, the underground chemical might actually help them preserve their quality of life.
The other is that the company responsible for the contamination is not likely to be forced to spend millions to clean it up, because of its bankruptcy filing.
Pistone said the Environmental Protection Division is watching the bankruptcy proceedings “to see how much we can get out of that.”
Barring a payout from the Al Phillips dry cleaning business, federal regulations require going after the land owner.
“It’s just the way the regulations are written,” Pistone said. “Somebody has to be responsible and if you own the land, you’re responsible for what goes on that land.”
That’s why the Herman Kishner Trust, which owned Maryland Square LLC and leased to Al Phillips, has set aside some money in case responsibility ultimately falls to it to pay for the cleanup, said Las Vegas attorney Al Marquis, who represents the trust.
“Al Phillips agreed they were responsible and that they would remediate the site,” Marquis said. “But with the filing of the bankruptcy ... it appears the ball is back in our court.”
He added, “We believe Al Phillips still has primary responsibility here and we intend to pursue that claim in the bankruptcy court.”
The state’s environmental agency hasn’t determined a cost for the cleanup yet, Pistone said. “Until we get actual cleanup plans in place, it’s pretty tough to estimate the cost.”
Marquis said the Kishner Trust estimates the cleanup will cost “millions of dollars.”
As part of the effort, the state environmental protection agency is taking water samples from 33 wells in the residential area under which the plume rests. The agency has also identified “about 15 homes,” Pistone said, where the amounts of PCE vapors exceeds “the health protective level.”
The state agency has contacted a contractor and talked to homeowners, and some remediation systems are about to be installed.
These systems can involve sealing a home’s foundation, then depressurizing the soil to prevent vapors from seeping indoors. Costs of these “subslab depressurization systems,” according to state agency’s Web site, can range from $2,000 to $20,000 per home.
The cost will ultimately be borne by whomever is forced to pay for the cleanup, Pistone added.
The agency estimates it could take five to 10 years to clean up the Maryland Square site.
Homeowners surrounding Las Vegas National Golf Club hope the contamination will somehow kill any plans by the golf course owners to build about 485 homes on the 130-acre site.
Actually, Pistone said, developers could build in the area as long as they follow environmental guidelines to ensure the health of anyone living there.
“There’s no regulation saying ‘until this is cleaned, you can’t do anything,’ ” he added. “We’d simply work with the developer as part of the developer’s due diligence, and if they decided to move forward, we’d do some additional monitoring wells as part of our due diligence.”
John Knott II, one of the investors who bought the golf course in August 2007, said before they bought it, the golf course was thoroughly tested for contamination.
“And we don’t have an (environmental) problem there,” said Knott, executive vice president of the CB Richard Ellis real estate brokerage. “There is a plume of PCE but it is in trace amounts and below all standards set by the federal government.”