EPA suit names Modesto cleaners

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is suing the former owners of a Modesto dry cleaning company to recover $9 million in expenses that the federal government incurred while treating a plume of tainted groundwater.

Three families associated with Halford's Cleaners on McHenry Avenue have denied the EPA's allegations in U.S. District Court.

The EPA is demanding that the families turn over financial information to indicate how much they can afford to contribute to the cleanup.

The EPA also is asking the court to levy steep administrative fines against the families because they did not provide that information when the agency requested it in fall 2005. Those fines could cost the families as much as $32,500 a day.

EPA contractors installed a groundwater treatment system at Halford's in 2000 -- 15 years after the Stanislaus County Department of Environmental Resources identified the site as a source of tetrachloroethylene, a hazardous chemical found in dry cleaning solvents.

The lawsuit, filed in March, is separate from another case filed by the city of Modesto in 1998 against more than a dozen dry cleaning companies and chemical makers because of similar environmental concerns.

A San Francisco Superior Court jury ordered the companies to pay Modesto $178 million to clean the city's groundwater, but a judge reduced that award to $12.7 million. The companies have appealed the judge's ruling.

Laurie Williams, EPA assistant general counsel, said the federal government's involvement with Modesto dry cleaning pollutants was limited to the Halford's site. That's why the EPA is pursuing claims against its owners instead of the larger group being sued by the city.

The EPA filed its claims in March against:

  • Stephen and Suzanne Lyon of San Francisco, co-landlords of the Halford's property.
  • Russell and Diane Tonda of Granite Bay, also co-landlords of the property.
  • And relatives of Shantalil Jamnadas, who owned the dry cleaning business from 1974 until his death in 2002.

Jamnadas' family denied the EPA's claims, contending the harmful chemicals were not released during his ownership of Halford's.

Attorneys for the Lyons and Tondas argued they had neither knowledge of nor control over the release of chemical solvents from Halford's. They filed a motion Monday arguing that the Jamnadas family, a slate of chemical makers and Halford's previous owners should be responsible for any environmental remediation the EPA conducted.

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.