Residents living in the northeast Wichita groundwater contamination area made it clear they are growing increasingly frustrated with a lack of action on the clean-up, especially after learning during the latest public hearing with KDHE on May 19 that they live in an area where liver cancer rates are double the state average.

State officials were quick to suggest residents with health concerns make an appointment with their medical provider to get the screening tests to see if they have any indications of developing liver cancer.

But residents pointed out it isn’t that easy. Many people don’t have insurance or a regular medical provider. Venus Lee, CEO of GraceMed Health Clinic, pointed out that testing is only the beginning.

“Since we’re telling everybody to go see their providers, and we’re happy to see them, are you going to give us the ability financially to treat them?” she asked. Officials sat uncomfortably silent at the question.

Back Story

The plume of contaminated groundwater has spread almost three miles south from the original spill site at 29th and Grove and contains several hundred times the amount of trichloroethene (TCE) considered safe for human exposure.

But State Environmental Health Officer and Epidemiologist, Dr. Farah Ahmed pointed out that many of the area’s residents have not been exposed to the water because most of the homes were built in the 1950s and 60s and were connected to city water at the time they were built.

TCE is commonly used as a solvent to clean paint and grease off metal surfaces and was used in the railroad yard that now belongs to the Union Pacific Railroad. Officials do not know when the original spill occurred. The contamination was discovered in 1994 during the planning for the 21st Street Industrial Corridor. Following the discovery, KDHE did extensive testing of soil samples, groundwater and air. They found severe soil contamination at the original site and in the groundwater as far south as Murdock Street. They found the presence of TCE at low levels in some of the air tests, but said the concentrations were not considered high enough to be a health threat.

Millair Neighborhood Association president Aujanae Bennett expressed frustration at the slow pace of the clean-up
Millair Neighborhood Association president Aujanae Bennett expressed frustration at the slow pace of the clean-up

Cancer risk levels vary

Ahmed explained that a person’s level of exposure is determined by several factors: the amount of the chemical they were exposed to, how frequently they were exposed and whether they ingested it, breathed in contaminated air or touched it with their bare hands.

She said the people most at risk are people who worked with the chemical on the job or who drank contaminated water.

Marie Florence said the house that she lives in has been in her husband’s family for generations and was not hooked up to city water until very recently. She said numerous family members have died of cancer.

Other residents told of digging sandpoint wells by hand in their own backyards to have water to irrigate lawns and vegetable gardens. And many remembered drinking from that garden hose or playing in the sprinklers as children. KDHE has said that it takes anywhere from 10 to 40 years after exposure for cancer to develop.

Another hearing in June

The next public meeting on the topic is expected to be held in June when Union Pacific Railroad officials will update residents on remediation measures. UP has agreed to pay for the entire cleanup which began in 2004 and is expected to take another 10 years to complete. The price tag is expected to be about $14 million.

KS Rep. Ford Carr, who represents the area in the state legislature, said he remembers playing in the original spill area as a child and there is a park and wooded area just north of 25th Street.

He called on state and local officials to immediately put up warning signs about the contamination in that area and go door-to-door to determine which homes use lawn and garden wells and to warn them their water is contaminated.

“It’s been a long, long time,” he said. “Too long.”