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Cleanup fee gets taken to cleaners

Dry cleaners have made a mess, and now they've got to clean it up.

Problem is, it costs millions of dollars, so many are passing the cost on to consumers.

Many dry cleaners across the state are raising their prices to recover fees the state began levying on them Oct. 1 to clean up dry cleaning-related toxic chemical spills that have contaminated drinking water in Pinellas, Hillsborough and other counties.

There are approximately 2,800 such spill sites in the state. And it could cost a minimum of $500,000 per site to clean them up, said Bill Burns, environmental manager in the hazardous waste cleanup section of the Department of Environmental Protection.

"That means it will cost about $1.4-billion in 1994 dollars to clean it all up," said Burns. "We estimate we'll only be getting about $15-million a year from the fees, so it will take about 93 years to finish the job."

State legislators decided that dry cleaners should help foot the bill.

Dry cleaners must pay the state 1.5 percent of their gross receipts for cleaning and a $5-per-gallon tax on a chemical solvent called perchloroethylene that many cleaners use. As of December 1995 cleaners will also pay an annual registration fee of $100 to $500 depending on the size of the business.

"It all adds up and we've got to figure out how to deal with it," said Bob Belin, owner of Beach Dry Cleaners in Clearwater.

Like many dry cleaners contacted Monday, Belin is charging customers 3 percent more per garment. Half of that is to cover the 1.5 percent charge on gross receipts and the rest is to cover the cost of the levy on the perchloroethylene.

In South Florida, some dry cleaners are charging as much as 6 percent more, according to the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel.

Perchloroethylene is a toxic solvent used to dissolve stains, but it also has contaminated some drinking water wells in Dade, Pinellas, Hillsborough, Escambia and several other counties, said Burns.

Steve Szikszay, owner of Tampa Bay Wholesale Cleaners Inc., which does the dry cleaning for several hotels in the area, said, "We're just charging the 1.5 percent to the hotels and taking the hit on the chemical solvent."

All dry cleaners will have to pay the 1.5 percent tax, but not all dry cleaners use perchloroethylene. Some clean with petroleum. Petroleum as a cleaning agent takes longer but is less rough on the clothes and more environmentally sound, said Florence Pratt, owner of New Port Richey Cleaners, which uses petroleum instead of perchloroethylene.

"We're just going to eat the 1.5 percent tax and we don't have to worry about the charge on perchloroethylene," said Pratt. "So our prices won't go up."