State and city officeholders are calling for quick action on an environmental issue that has caused an unknown number of deaths and illnesses in the community over a span of 30 years or longer.
Groundwater and soil in the area the Kansas Department of Health and Environment has designated the “29th and Grove Site” is heavily contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals spilled at the Union Pacific Railroad site near 29th and Grove. The spilled chemical was a degreaser used to clean metal.
“KDHE is still researching, but the original chemical spill could have been back in the 1970s. We know it was discovered in 1994. And we know that the levels of contamination are 200 times higher than the safe levels,” said State Representative K.C.Ohaebosin at a news conference held on Wed., Oct. 5.
The initial spill of trichloroethene (TCE) was discovered in 1994 when the city began development of the 21st Street Corridor from Interstate 135 to Grove Street.. KDHE first began an investigation in 1999 and confirmed th chemical and the origination of the spoil at the Union Pacific rail yard.
The TCE has now broken down into other compounds called 1,2-dichoroethene, 1,1 dichlorothene and vinyl chloride. All three are toxic and are present in a groundwater plume that has spread south from the initial spill area to Murdock St. The spill widened as it went south, stretching east and west from Grove to Minnesota and as far west as Hydraulic near the south end of the spill.
Put bluntly, if you live in the designated area, your groundwater is toxic and so is your soil. Drinking the water from a well could make you sick or kill you. Eating vegetables grown in contaminated soil or watered from a well could also make you sick.
While most people living in the site don’t know about the spill, they will.soon. As early as this weekend (Oct. 8, 9) flyers will be going on the doors of the approximately 2,500 homes in the contaminated area. The flyers will notify residents that they have until Oct. 16 to either leave a comment on the KDHE website or email KDHE geologist Mary Daily, who is working on developing a clean-up plan.
Aujanae Bennett, President of the Northeast Milair Neighborhood Association, near the north end of the spill, said she first learned about the problem at a meeting conducted by KDHE in early September. Since that meeting the comment period has been extended from Sept. 16 to Oct. 16. In addition, a second community meeting has been scheduled for Nov. 5, from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Boys and Girls Club, 2400 N. Opportunity Way.
Bennett said only a handful of people and no elected officials came to the first community meeting and it was clear to her that most of her neighbors were not aware there had been a serious problem in their community for well over 20 years.
On Wednesday, city, county and state elected officials participated in a news conference to call attention to the issue and urge residents to make their voices heard by KDHE.
“This has taken way, way too long,” said former Councilwoman Lavonta Williams. “This needs to be fixed now.”
Current District 1 Councilman Brandon Johnson, who called the news conference, agreed. He said KDHE is attempting to collect data on how many people living in the area have had the type of cancer caused by the chemicals but the extended time period makes it a difficult job.
“Some residents may have moved away and later got sick or died,” he said. “We may never be able to find them all.”
“We need people to sign up to attend that meeting and to leave their comments for KDHE,”said Ohaebosim. Sedgwick County Commissioner Lacey Cruse said the issue has to be “fast-tracked” and a solution found quickly, while State Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau said the emphasis needs to be on clean-up.
Johnson said he wasn’t sure if any initial remediation, which often involves excavating areas of heavy contamination might cause the air to be contaminated and was uncertain what residents of the area should do.
Attending the Nov. 5 community meeting will be the best way to get questions answered, Johnson said.
But residents may be frustrated when they learn how long it may take to fully remediate the site or even if it can be fully remediated.
Knowing that there is contamination is one thing. Knowing how to clean it up is another and that’s why years of delays, repeated assessments and studies of potential remediation plans have gone by.
KDHE and the UP Railroad have done several investigations in which soil and air in the area was sampled.
Documents explaining the contamination are available on the KDHE website and at the Wichita Northeast Angelou Library for residents to read.
The Community Voice is trying to assess the health damage and impact this bill may have had on residents – present and past – in that area.