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Bill: No more suing over chemical

Dry cleaning chemicals are so potent they can seep through concrete floors into groundwater. They are costly and difficult to clean up, and they've even been found in human blood.

Nevertheless, two lawmakers have filed a bill to make it impossible to sue if the chemicals seep across property lines into your back yard.

The giant behind the scenes is supermarket chain Publix, which owns some strip malls where dry cleaners have polluted. One of the bill's primary sponsors, Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland, is a lawyer whose firm represents Publix. Ross did not respond to a request for comment.

The bill, scheduled for a Senate hearing today, declares that it's in the public interest to "improve marketability . . . (of) property contaminated by dry cleaning solvents."

In 2001, Publix lost a legal fight in Lee County that began when a nearby property owner sued because dry cleaning fluid had migrated onto his land from a Publix-owned shopping center. Now, Publix and the trade group it belongs to, the Florida Retail Federation, are trying to get the law changed.

Senate Republican Majority Leader Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island, is the other sponsor of the bill (H741).

Hundreds of wells around Florida are contaminated by dry cleaning fluid, including about 150 in Tampa's Seminole Heights neighborhood. Homeowners there had to stop drinking their well water and get connected to public water lines.

Dry cleaning chemicals can cause liver and kidney problems. The main chemical, perchloroethylene, causes cancer in lab animals and are suspected to cause human cancer.

Florida's Department of Environmental Protection opposes the bill. The DEP says it has its hands full trying to clean up some 1,400 polluted dry cleaning sites around the state. Regulators estimate that it will take at least 75 years and a half-billion dollars to get the job done.

During the next 75 years, DEP says, a lot of dry cleaning fluid will be left in Florida's underground water supplies, and it could move around and contaminate nearby properties.

"With the great number of sites we have in this state, where contamination is running off the property into groundwater, this poses a real threat to Florida's drinking water supply," said one of the bill's opponents, attorney Scott Randolph of the Legal Environmental Assistance Foundation. "This bill wants to say: "Hey, we should be able to put this property on the market, and we shouldn't have to worry about it.' "

But Sen. Jones said there was another side to the story, and he points to Wayne Pitts of Tampa as an example. Like Jones, Pitts is a chiropractor. He owns a strip mall at the corner of Linebaugh and Armenia. About 13 years ago, a dry cleaner in the strip mall dumped chemicals out back. The dry cleaner went bankrupt and moved out of state. Because Pitts owned the building, the state said he was liable.

"There I was, looking at a $750,000 to $1-million cleanup fee," Pitts said. "My wife and I didn't have that money. We'd have gone bust."

Pitts went to Tallahassee and lobbied for a new state cleanup program that began in 1994.

"My wife and I realized we were not alone," he said. "This was a statewide problem."

The Legislature set up a massive state cleanup program that year that gave dry cleaners amnesty for the pollution. As long as they agreed to get on a list for state cleanup, they would not be fined for polluting groundwater. Dry cleaners had to install new pollution controls, and they began paying a tax on chemicals and sales.

Today, the state uses that tax money to clean up the sites. The main dry cleaning chemical sinks in water, and it can settle in limestone caverns underground.

"Nobody quite realized it was just going right through concrete floors into the ground," said John Ruddell, director of the DEP's division of waste management.

Cleanup at a single site can cost $250,000 to $500,000, DEP says. And the going is slow. Out of 1,400 sites, the state has cleaned up 58 so far. The cleanup at Pitts' property hasn't started yet _ eight years after the law was passed.

If the dry cleaning chemicals migrate to a nearby property, and the neighbor sued, Pitts worries he could be held liable.

The original dry cleaning law says that, as long as a property owner is on the state's cleanup list, they can't be sued by someone to force a faster cleanup. But a nearby property owner can still sue for damages if he ends up with dry cleaning fluid in his well or on his land.

That's unfair, argues Scott Dick, lobbyist for the Florida Retail Federation.

"We call it double dipping," Dick said. "The property is being cleaned up by the state, and still (nearby property owners) are seeking huge financial settlements."

Jones, the Senate sponsor, called the bill "a work in progress." Even though the bill clearly prevents people from suing for property damage from dry cleaning pollution, he said he would amend it to allow some people to sue, "as long as they can prove harm."

A similar bill passed the Senate last year, but died in the House.

Contamination from dry cleaning chemicals isn't unique to Florida. Some cleaners are moving to less toxic methods. In Southern California, the chemicals are considered an air pollution hazard, and the government is imposing a ban.

_ Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.