Collateral Damage: DEP vs. Main Street Business


by Terrilyn Simpson

The two inspectors showed up on a day when she was taking a rare few hours off. They came unexpected and unannounced.

Over the next 15 months they would topple her financial security, deplete her self-confidence, destroy her business and put a dozen longtime employees out of work. They were from the government and they were there to help her.

To this day she’s not altogether sure why the Maine Department of Environmental Protection targeted her.

Connie Bowden Sarnacki grew up in the small, Belfast dry cleaning business owned by her father. Richard Bowden had started working at Em Bee Cleaners in the 1940s, when he was only 17. Once when a co-worker Richard was close to had to be hospitalized, Richard worked both his own shift and the co-worker’s so that the friend would have a paycheck coming in until he could get back to work. That was the kind of place it was. That was the kind of family Connie came from.

The business was first located in Winterport and moved to Belfast in the 1950s. Richard bought the establishment from the original owner and often worked around the clock to keep everything going and support his family. Connie remembered helping out there when she was as young as 12. People in the waterfront community stopped in to pick up pressed shirts or hemmed trousers or a newly cleaned suit or prom gown — and to talk and to laugh. If a community general store could find a correlating counterpart in a downtown dry cleaning business, Em Bee was it. Customers leaned on the counter and related details of their everyday lives. The place became a touchstone for its customers.

Connie left. She got married. She ran a bed and breakfast in Alaska and she worked in banking. Then in ’96 or ’97 she went back to work for her father. In 1998 she bought the business — allegedly so that her father could retire though he was helping out at the dry cleaners so much it became a standing joke about how his retirement was going.

For her, buying the business was also a bit of a challenge — she wanted to prove to herself, and perhaps to her father, that she could take it over, run it on her own. Her husband, an engineer, taught at the Maritime Academy. He’d fix the machinery, be there when she needed him. But the business was hers.

At four feet, eleven, with a slight frame, she was overwhelmed in more ways than one when the DEP inspectors showed up late on a Friday morning in the spring of 2009. She got a call from the two employees working — Friday was clean the equipment day and they were the only two crew members there. They called Sarnacki when they couldn’t answer all the questions being tossed at them. When she arrived, she was faced with confrontation immediately. She said it was clear from the start they intended to intimidate. One of the men was over six feet tall and unfriendly. She couldn’t figure out why.

He announced he’d been trained by the US government. Sarnacki tried to engage him in conversation and asked if he’d received his training while in the military — he answered in the affirmative but appeared angry at her question.

She’d had 12 years of good inspections with no problems. Her father, as previous owner, had had bad inspections one or two times in the mid ‘90s, resulting from old equipment which was, she said, standard fare for many dry cleaning establishments at the time. He’d ended up tearing out the old and replacing it with new, updated models. The DEP inspector at the time, a woman named Sherry, had been “wonderful to work with, personable, made suggestions, very helpful…..”

But the two men who arrived on that Friday morning were “very cold — they seemed to have a power problem….” Sarnacki asked if they’d been a complaint — they said they couldn’t tell her.

She couldn’t figure it out. “(We) never even got complaints from anybody about smelling anything — we got nothing but compliments — when people would come in they would say…. it was the only dry cleaner they’d been in that didn’t smell like a dry cleaner.”

She didn’t know if she had the right to refuse the impromptu inspection but she said she had no reason to, so she worked to be accommodating. “But it was like they were searching so hard to find something, anything.”

The men looked around and found a bucket of dry, fluffy lint from a dry, cleaning machine. They cited her for not having a cover on the bucket. “Nobody had ever said anything about that before.” And she was told that she had to mark it as hazardous waste. She wrote on the side of the bucket with a black, magic marker. There was another bucket with a trace of solvent in the bottom. That also had to be marked. There was a box of fluorescent light tubes, to be recycled — the inspectors said they had to be in a separate area, in a special box, taped up and enclosed. “It was stupid stuff,” she said.

The water filtration system for the dry cleaning machine was an old system that her husband, the engineer, tweaked to keep running. One of the inspectors demanded to see what she used for filters. Again, because her husband took care of it, she was unfamiliar with what he used. The inspector would not allow her to open the machine. She found an unopened box — unused because someone had picked up the wrong ones. Another black mark. Her husband had in fact been using the correct, carbon-based filters. But she was told the machine was wrong, that she’d need to discontinue use. She was also told she was supposed to have a license to use it. It had never been mentioned in any of the previous inspections. She later received a letter saying that because it was what she’d been using to filter the water from the machines before dumping, “that I’d been dumping hazardous waste into the sewer for either 12 or 13 years.”

When she later realized her mistake, it seemed futile to re-explain. Compliance seemed the best route. She stopped using the machine and started sending off the water from the machine in hazardous waste barrels at about triple the cost of what she’d been spending. “I’d done what I’d been told — it was going to hazardous waste — the machine was taken apart and thrown away….I’d done what they asked me to do.” She thought the problem was taken care of. “I was pretty naive……looking back.”

Sarnacki didn’t know about the Maine Toxic Use Reduction Act, though now she recalls hearing a reference to it without understanding its relevance. She didn’t know about Maine Representative Sharon Treat’s legislation, aimed at tightening up on the use of a whole list of chemicals, particularly perchloroethylene, (PCE), the solvent used in dry cleaning, with an eventual goal of its complete elimination from all usage.

In July, Sarnacki received a letter from DEP saying they were coming back, to test “for soil vapor — they were looking for PCE.” DEP inspectors took soil samples around the late 19th century building – an apartment building is located behind, a lawyer’s office located next door.

“They wrote back saying that the level right where the old cleaning machine had been was five or six times higher than it was supposed to be — and yet, about six yards away, it came in at almost nothing.” The old dry cleaning machine had been located on an outside wall, where the trace amounts showed up. The equipment had been removed before Sarnacki bought the business. She remembered that years before, a truck had delivered the solvent to the building and pumped it through a hose into the machinery — and that occasionally, when the driver got distracted, for instance, there would be a small amount of leakage outside.

The inspectors drilled test holes outside — trace amounts of PCE showed up in a couple, zero amounts in others. Letters were sent from DEP to neighbors announcing that they were going to come in and do air sampling in their buildings. “DEP didn’t give them a choice.” Some stopped by “and they were upset that this was being done.” None, as far as Sarnacki could tell, had identified a problem and none understood why DEP was being so heavy-handed.

Sarnacki hired her own engineer. Then she hired an attorney.

DEP was showing up with five staff members at a time — some to do the work, some who were in training, to observe. She asked DEP how much this was going to cost her. She was told about bills for $1,100, then $1,600, but that didn’t include labor, she was told.

She’d always managed to keep a cash cushion, to try to keep employees going in the winter when business was slow, to fix the old furnace, to take care of emergencies that an old building and a small business might spring on one unexpectedly. But the $35,000 she’d had set aside was pretty much depleted. A rumor started around town that DEP was closing her down.

A project manager from DEP recommended that she authorize DEP to undertake a Phase I study. Sarnacki asked about cost. She was told Phase I could cost anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000. That would lead to a Phase II study, at a similar cost. “There was just no way — I couldn’t do that.” She said she didn’t have that kind of money. At that point, she didn’t have any money.

She was told that eventually DEP would come after her to recoup costs. She was given that in writing by a DEP project manager.

Even though legally she’d formed an S Corp to house the business when she’d purchased it, her attorney told her that she was going to be financially responsible for the rest of her life, even if DEP changed their standards and and gave more weight to the trace amounts they’d unearthed. She was led to believe DEP might be able to go after the home she owned with her husband.

The whole ordeal had begun to take a toll on Sarnacki physically – at one point, she collapsed. “The ambulance came and the whole nine yards.” She declined to discuss it further.

The process got increasingly confusing. Additional sampling found almost no chemical residue.

Sarnacki closed the business, putting 12 employees, who’d worked at the dry cleaner for anywhere from one to 30 years, out of work. Only one, she said, has since found a job.

A concerned friend introduced Sarnacki to a California woman visiting in the Belfast area — the woman specialized in environmental remediation and thought she might be able to offer pointers. But by then, the business was gone, the money was gone and DEP was still in the wings. Not having unearthed a toxic waste site seemed not to have diminished DEP’s determination.

The building was for sale. When the California woman made an offer, Sarnacki accepted. They closed the deal in eight days.

Sarnacki’s was able to pay off her mortgage and the bills she’d encountered scrambling to comply with DEP’s unyielding mandates. When all was settled, she hadn’t even made minimum wage for herself for the 12 years she’d run the business. “It gave me the ability to pay everything I owed and walk away.”

She’s not sure exactly what’s transpired between the new owner and DEP but Sarnacki suspects the buyer’s background in environmental remediation gave her an immediate advantage over Sarnacki’s naive starting point. In the year she’s owned the property, she’s received the necessary permits to renovate the building for both commercial and residential use.

Sarnacki is still not sure why Em Bee was picked. As far as dry cleaners go, there were others using more than ten times the amount of PCE she was using. She was later told DEP had been granted money to do five Phase I assessments from the Uncontrolled Sites Fund.

“None of it makes any sense,” she said.