Community members pulled no punches in confronting state, county and city officials at an informational meeting to make residents in the area impacted by the soil and groundwater contamination from the  29th and Grove site aware of what additional remediation efforts are planned.

The contamination, which was discovered in 1994, has been determined to have resulted from a spill of trichloroethylene at the Union Pacific railyard at 29th and Grove, as long ago as the 1970s.

“I never thought that in Wichita, Kansas I would be confronted with environmental racism,” former Wichita City Councilwoman Lavonta Williams said, her voice cracking with emotion. “Down south, yes, this happens. But here in Wichita? I was on the council. I didn’t know about this.”

She reacted strongly to a suggestion from KDHE Director of the Bureau of Environmental Remediation, Randy Carlson, statement the contamination was complicated and “too expensive” to clean up. 

“Too expensive?” she said. “We are talking about people’s lives. I know the rate of infant mortality in the Black community. I know about health issues, past and present. Too expensive for what? For our community?”

Carlson quickly apologized saying he didn’t mean this particular spill was too expensive but that contamination like this in general requires multiple steps and multiple appropriations of money to completely remediate. He said the work at the 29th and Grove site has been ongoing for all the years since the spill was discovered.

In general, the crowd of 60 or more people at the Boys and Girls Club on Nov. 5, expressed anger and concern, tinged with fear. They felt blindsided to learn:

  • 50 years ago, the groundwater under their homes was contaminated with chemicals that cause cancer and 
  • the city and state have known about it for more than 20 years but 
  • the community didn’t get reminders about it and 
  • newcomers moving in were not informed about it. 

A palpable anger

Northeast Millair Neighborhood Association President Aujanae Bennett, most of which is in the contaminated areas,  said she has lived in the neighborhood for 58 years and never knew about the contamination. She is not willing to accept a remediation plan that will take years to complete.

“Too much time has already gone by,” she said.

James Roseboro, president of the Northeast Highgate Neighborhood Association agreed. “The city has to be held accountable for this,” he said. “Lawsuits are coming.”

He was attending the meeting with Eugene Smith, vice-president of the Highgate Association, who said that he thinks the outrage over the pollution is going to grow as more information about how much the city and KDHE knew – and didn’t communicate – comes out.

“I think the city is in trouble,” he said. 

That could depend on whether or not the health study currently underway at the insistence of the City Council shows significant increases in health problems, including specific cancers such as kidney and bladder cancers connected to the pollution.

KDHE has said it may take several more weeks for that health study to be complete and even then there may be questions because pollution from other carcinogens is present in the area and several of them can cause similar cancers.

“We may be able to complete a study that shows higher levels of cancer, but not be able to correlate that to higher levels of TCE,” said Levi Cooke, Remediation Unit Manager for KDHE.

Several community members questioned when that health study will be completed, arguing that the fact it is pending should not prevent lawsuits from moving forward. 

How significant is the risk?

KDHE assured residents that the current risk is small. 

They clarified, the contamination plume is at the bottom of the aquifer and remains right above the bedrock. i If the water table rises, it is the water at the top of the aquifer that sometimes makes its way into basements of homes and it is not polluted.

The chemical does not move laterally through soil; it sinks. 

“This is why the soil at the surface is not contaminated except at the spill site,” Cooke said “It is also not taken up by the roots of plants, so if you water your vegetable garden from a groundwater well, the fruits and vegetables are still OK to eat. And exposing the water to air helps the contamination evaporate. As long as there is no prolonged contact with skin, you are OK.”

Communication failures

There was publicity about the contamination when it was discovered during an examination of an abandoned gas station site, KDHE geologist Mary Daily told the citizens at the meeting. There was also extensive newspaper and television coverage when the initial remediation efforts were started.

But there was not ongoing communication and newcomers to the area were not told about pollution problems.

Allison Herring, KDHE District Environmental Administrator for South Center Kansas, vowed to work harder at making sure community organizations are notified so that individuals can be involved when decisions are being made and to improve communication to the residents. But she also pleaded for help.

She apologized for the lack of information that made it out to the public. She explained the hurdles the state faces in contacting residents and dealing with distrust in general.

“Often people don’t answer our calls, don’t come to the door if we knock, don’t open our mail, don’t come to meetings,” she said. “We appreciate any and all help getting the message out.”

What happens next?

KDHE will review all the public comments that have been made and will make a final decision in December about how to proceed with remediation.

Union Pacific Railroad will bear the $14 million cost of the clean up.

Residents are likely to see drilling rigs or construction sites for pipes, but private property will not be disturbed during the remediation process. It may be as long as 10 years before all the contamination is removed.