Founded in 1901, Capital City Laundry was in operation for most of the 20th century. At its peak, the family-owned and operated dry cleaners included a dozen locations across Montgomery, far more than its closest competitor. Shortly after opening, the business was acquired by newcomer Charles Smith Sr. who further developed and expanded the business. In the 1950s, his son Charles Smith Jr., an MIT graduate, helped modernize the operation to compete with the new coin-operated laundry phenom. The family business amassed into a showcase steam laundry operation. In 1959, Charles Smith III renovated the old laundry building with a new façade.
During the construction of the RSA Energy Plant in 1993, construction crews discovered soil and groundwater contamination with PCE spreading under 50 blocks of downtown Montgomery. The groundwater contamination was first discovered in a city well in 1991 when the city identified tetrachloroethylene (PCE) in public water wells. Two wells were closed, with the city shifting to take its water from the Tallapoosa River upstream or from wells approximately eight miles south of downtown that were not affected by the plume. City officials say it has no path to escape from its current location, but the groundwater contains contaminants, including carcinogens, that could be harmful if exposed.
The Environmental Protection Agency stepped in shortly after the discovery of the downtown plume. Many of the businesses closed shortly after the EPA began their investigation and have been left abandoned ever since. Some business owners simply shut their doors and disregarded any requests by the EPA. Crews removed the contaminated soil from the site and have since planted trees to absorb the contaminants and installed vapor barriers in some buildings. EPA officials discovered dry-cleaning solvents, cleaning agents, and degreasers in groundwater under the downtown area.
A report by the EPA ties the pollutants to multiple cleaners and gas stations in the area. The EPA lists these businesses as the most likely scenario since the contaminants are present in multiple locations and not traceable to a single source. During the investigation, officials discovered barrels of discarded cleaning chemicals inside one of the dry cleaners. The barrels contained the same chemical that was found in the contaminated groundwater. The EPA first proposed the site, known as the Capital City Plume, be added to the agency’s National Priorities List in 2000. A designation on the EPA National Priorities List means a site has known releases or threatens releases of hazardous materials or pollutants.
The City of Montgomery began monitoring groundwater contamination in 2006. In 2011, the U.S. Geological Survey said tree ring analysis pointed to the Montgomery Advertiser and the Alabama Department of Education as the most responsible for the plume. The EPA also says the Alabama Attorney General’s Office and the Alabama Department of Transportation contributed to the plume.
In 2012, the city, county, state, Montgomery Water Works and Sanitary Sewer Board, the Montgomery Advertiser, Standard Roofing of Montgomery, and other businesses formed the Downtown Environmental Alliance to work with the EPA and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management ADEM to address remaining needs. The group split costs and paid back the EPA for the costs of investigating the site. The ADEM has overseen the clean-up since 2015. In July 2020, the ADEM recommended that the EPA withdraw its listing of the site and the site was removed in September 2020. Montgomery’s downtown has already undergone an economic resurgence with hotels, museums, new retail shops and the baseball stadium in recent years. The mayor hopes the decision will allow continued revitalization of the downtown area.