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Dry cleaners want state regulators to give them more time to arrange for mandatory environmental inspections, claiming a shortage of third-party inspectors has made it impossible for some businesses to comply with a Dec. 25 deadline.

Dry cleaners that fail to sign up for inspections by Christmas face fines of up to $10,000 -- penalties that could bankrupt smaller operators, industry spokesmen warned.

The request by the Neighborhood Cleaners' Association International has won the support of Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, D-Kenmore, who chairs the Assembly's Economic Development Committee. Schimminger sent a letter to the state Department of Environmental Conservation this week asking regulators to either extend the deadline or impose other means of relief.

Schimminger said the dry cleaning industry is dominated by smaller, family-operated businesses that have already faced severe fiscal challenges stemming from new state and federal clean air standards that required the installation of costly equipment.

"This is one Christmas package that shouldn't be placed under the dry cleaners' trees," said Schimminger. "Given the shortage of inspectors, I think this is an unreasonable deadline and it should be extended."

But a spokesperson for the DEC said the deadline will stand.

"This is a long-standing requirement. There are inspectors out there who are not fully booked and there are inspection times available," said Jennifer Post. "We don't anticipate the deadline changing."

The DEC regulations were drafted in 1997, but industry officials said training for independent inspectors didn't begin until this year. They claimed there are currently only six or seven certified inspectors throughout the state, including one in the Buffalo area who came on board only a week ago.

"There's no way in the world that seven inspectors are going to be able to take care of more than 4,000 dry cleaning establishments across the state," said Joseph A. Petrozzi, who owns Capitol Cleaners in Niagara Falls and serves as chapter president of the Neighborhood Cleaners' Association.

Russell Petrozzi, vice president of Capitol Cleaners and a certification instructor for the Western New York region, said most local businesses understand the merits of the new regulations. He claimed the vast majority of dry cleaners in the region have a sensitivity to environmental issues and have laudable compliance records.

Petrozzi said most of their complaints involve the Dec. 25 deadline for signing up for inspections, as well as the costs associated with those inspections. While the actual inspections can cost between $400 and $500, some business owners have also had to agree to pay for transportation and lodging costs to bring in inspectors from other parts of the state. The association has urged the state to extend the deadline for initiating inspections by at least six months. They argue that the longer time period would permit new inspectors to be trained, reducing backlogs and undoubtedly lowering the costs of the mandate.

Louis Pacifico, the owner of Louis Dry Cleaning on Abbott Road in Buffalo, said the new burdens come at a time when most establishments have already been saddled with increased costs associated with environmental regulations.

"We're small, struggling businesses and these regulations are killing us," said Pacifico. "It's only going to drive up prices in the long run."

Joseph Petrozzi is a local spokesman for a trade association that represents 4,000 member-companies worldwide. He said if the state opts to impose $10,000 fines on businesses that have yet to arrange for inspections, it would spell financial ruin for some.

"You're not talking about businesses that have 100 workers. Fines of this nature would put many of them out of business," Petrozzi said. "As it is, some dry cleaners are just throwing in the towel and are either closing their doors or selling out."

State environmental regulations revised in 1997 required the phaseout of older equipment that vent residue into the atmosphere. Dry cleaners that are housed in mixed-use buildings faced more rigorous timetables for addressing concerns involving the use of certain cleaning solvents.

Other new regulations require owners and equipment operators to take certification courses and pass examinations. Joseph Petrozzi said that when the cost of the course, class materials, test fees and lost productivity are tallied, a business could pay almost $1,000 to certify an individual.

The inspections are being launched to ensure that all establishments are complying with state and federal environmental regulations. The third-party inspectors make sure that proper equipment has been installed and is being adequately maintained, safe waste-disposal procedures are being used and paperwork requirements are being met.

"The regulations are not the problem," said Russell Petrozzi, Joe's son and the vice president of the chain. "As dry cleaners become trained, I think they'll begin to see that the regulations are fair and achieveable for the most part. The problem is that there just hasn't been enough time to train enough inspectors in order to meet the deadline."

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