For at least a decade, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has known that water discharged by industrial laundries contains hazardous waste, and that effluent from industrial laundries is being discharged to municipal water treatment facilities that were not designed to handle such waste. Most of this hazardous waste comes from residue left on rental shop towels used in industrial facilities. Indeed, after extensive study in the mid-1990's, EPA's Office of Water issued proposed rules that would have required industrial laundries to use equipment designed to trap hazardous wastes before effluent is discharged to public sewer systems.
After consideration, and repeated claims from industrial launderers that the rule would cripple them financially, EPA's Office of Water backed off in 1999 citing rulemaking efforts within another division of the Agency, the Office of Solid Waste (OSW), that would require hazardous materials be removed from laundered shop towels prior to the laundering process. This approach, according to the Office of Water, was more practical since it would achieve the desired goal without requiring laundries to install new equipment.
Now, more than six years later, EPA's OSW has still failed to issue a final rule. Moreover, OSW recently told INDA that that final action is not expected until 2007 because a risk assessment used to justify the proposed version of the rule must be done over. At least nine months are needed for the new risk assessment, OSW predicts, and an additional three to four months will be needed to solicit and consider public comments related to outcomes from the new risk assessment. Tack on at least eight to twelve months more for bureaucratic approvals needed to finalize any Federal rule, and it is easy to see why it may take another two years for final EPA action.
Yet while all this plays itself out, industrial laundries continue to process millions of shop towels every day that are soiled with hazardous waste material, and they continue to discharge contaminated effluent to public water works with EPA's full knowledge that at least some of this hazardous material is capable of passing through treatment processes.
Outrageous? Well, there's more. In recent months illegal activities have been adjudicated against industrial laundries big and small, and the launderers' trade association is now asking EPA's Office of Water to make it a requirement for local waterworks to use a means of measuring laundry pollutants that is preferred by industry even though waterworks are already free to use such measurements if they choose. The stated goal of this effort is to help laundries escape being fined when their pollution concentrations exceed acceptable limits.
Here are the details: On August 11, 2005 the Hartford Courant newspaper reported that Cintas—one of the largest industrial laundering operations in the United States—has agreed to pay a $450,000 fine to settle "a long list of water pollution violations going back more than a decade." According to the Courant, the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection brought suit against Cintas in 2001 alleging "numerous environmental violations, including dumping of untreated wastewater, dating from 1994." In addition to the fine, Cintas agreed to stop using chemicals known as alkylphenol ethoxylates, or APEs, as part of the settlement, and agreed to stop washing shop towels that are "soaked in solvents and other toxic chemicals" at its facility in Branford, CT.
The article further notes that "Connecticut may become one of the first states in the country to ban a company from using APEs, an ingredient common in industrial cleaning detergents. The chemicals do not break down completely in sewage treatment plants and have been found to interfere with reproduction in fish and animals. Both the European Union and Canada have banned or put limits on the chemical, but so far the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has only encouraged companies to voluntarily switch to detergents that don't contain APEs." The article fails to mention, however, whether Cintas will continue using APEs at any of the other facilities it operates in North America (350 according to the company website).
And Cintas is not alone in the courts these days. On September 7, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported a criminal case involving a former manager at the Iron City Uniform Rental Company who pleaded guilty to systematic violations of the company's Federal waste water discharge permit from 1995 to 2000. According to the Post-Gazette, the criminal case stemmed from the fact that Iron City did not have "expensive equipment needed to comply with [its] discharge permit requirements," so a manager simply ordered employees to illegally conceal the fact that a million gallons of laundry effluent containing benzene, toluene and other hazardous material was discharged to the local waterworks every month for five years.
"Oily shop rags" were some of "the dirtiest items laundered at Iron City" according to the article, and elaborate steps were taken to cover illegal activities. Employees were ordered, for example, to stall inspectors so other employees could flush all the toilets and run all the sinks before waste water samples were taken. "The idea," according to the Post-Gazette "was to add clean water to dilute the polluted wastewater that the company, the last family-owned commercial cleaner in Pittsburgh, was sending to [local waterworks] for treatment."
According to the article, Iron City violated other aspects of its discharge permit by taking water samples from inappropriate areas of the plant. The company's permit required, for instance, that waste water samples only be taken after effluent had traveled through a special pit designed to capture certain pollutants. But Iron City employees were ordered to take samples from parts of the operation where water was cleaner, according to the article, including "directly from the washers during the rinse cycle." The intent, according to the Post-Gazette, was "to get less polluted samples."
Employees were also told to add acid to some wastewater samples to lower the alkaline level, and to add oil and grease to some samples so local water officials "would not become suspicious that Iron City's wastewater was 'too clean' to represent genuine samples." The former manager who pleaded guilty to these offenses is facing 10-16 months in jail and up to $250,000 in fines.
So now the question emerges: Are these a couple of isolated incidents, or are they symbolic of a broader set of practices being conducted by others in the laundering industry? Unfortunately, we may never know.
But we do know that, every day, industrial laundries discharge hazardous waste to local waterworks which, according to the Washington Post, are "crumbling" due to age, neglect and budget cuts. We also know that certain waterworks actually allow industrial laundries to discharge more pollution than allowed under their permits because waterworks can collect surcharges from these laundries to augment their operating budgets. Lastly, we know that a trade association that represents industrial laundries has written to EPA asking that the Agency require local waterworks to use a means of measuring pollutants in effluent discharges that is favored by industry.
On this final point, Textile Rental magazine ran an article in July 2005 noting that industrial laundries that have taken steps to reduce the amount of water they consume are now finding that the concentrations of pollutants in their discharge exceed local limits and laundries are being hit with "enforcement actions or actual monetary penalties." The solution–articulated in a May 24 letter from the Textile Rental Services Association of America to EPA's Assistant Administrator for Water (and reprinted in Textile Rental)–is for EPA to require that state and local governments allow laundries to use different sampling methods.
Specifically, TRSA's letter says, "In a recent example, one of our members installed a new processing washer that uses less water and found himself in court, fined and put in significant non-compliance for violations of instantaneous limits. He was required to measure four times in a sampling day but was not allowed to average the results to obtain a representative sample."
According to TRSA, laundries should not be punished if the concentration of their pollutants goes up so long as the total amount of pollution discharged does not rise as well. But short shrift is given to the fact that local waterworks are already free to use the requested measuring technique if they so choose. As the Textile Rental article notes, EPA "�has provided guidance on the desirability of alternate limits in its original Program Guidance to [public waterworks]. Unfortunately, this is only guidance and not a regulatory requirement (emphasis included in original).
Members of INDA, Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry, contend that a better solution, however, would be for EPA—either the Office of Solid Waste or the Office of Water or the Administrator himself—to stop dragging its feet and finalize a rule that would require known hazardous wastes to be removed from rental shop towels before they are laundered. That, after all, is the only way to ensure that community drinking water is not contaminated with hazardous waste from industrial laundries.