Funds are available for anyone who now lives or once lived in the area contaminated by a chemical spill near 29th and Grove Streets to be tested for the health conditions known to be connected to exposure to trichloroethylene, commonly known as TCE.

A recent health survey showed that residents in the area have more than double the rate of liver cancer as the rest of the county and state and that birth defects are more common. TCE is known to cause kidney and liver cancer and birth defects.

In a sometimes-heated public meeting held Saturday to bring current and former community members up to date on both the clean-up efforts and the availability of testing, public and health care leaders assured residents that  if they do not use water from groundwater wells, they are not at risk from the contamination.

Mary Daily, a geologist with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, urged residents who do have groundwater wells on their property to notify KDHE because the agency is compiling an inventory of all the wells in the contamination area. She added that residents who want their well to be capped can get help to make that happen.

A spokesman for Union Pacific Railroad, which will bear the cost of final cleanup, assured residents that progress is being made.

A timeline of the contamination

The contamination was discovered in 1994 during preparation for improvement of the 21st Street area between I-135 and Grove St. In 1998, KDHE identified the UP Railyard as the source and began an investigation to determine the best method to remedy it. At the time, the investigation indicated that the contamination likely occurred in the mid-1970s.

In 2009, six groundwater extraction wells were installed along Murdock Avenue and began operation. The system has prevented the groundwater plume from spreading further to the south.

In 2010 and 2011, contaminated soil was removed from the spill site and clean infill soil was brought in. There has also been chemical oxidation in 2010 and 2011 and bioremediation from 2018 to the present. Chemical oxidation refers to the use of oxidation reagents such as hydrogen peroxide, chlorine dioxide, and ozone for reduction of nonbiodegradable compounds and trace organic compounds Bioremediation involves using microbes that consume contaminates for food and energy to eliminate the chemicals.

For much of the three decades after the discovery, people living in the area were not warned of the danger posed by groundwater wells. All the homes in the area have city water for drinking, bathing and cooking but many residents have used groundwater wells for watering lawns and gardens. Many people also allowed children to play in lawn sprinklers on used wells to fill wading or swimming pools.

KDHE approved a final plan for cleanup in February 2023. UP estimates it will take another decade to completely remove the contamination from the groundwater.

What happens now?

The UP consultant said there will be additional soil vapor testing and the surface water in Chisholm Creek is routinely sampled and tested, but that testing has not found contamination either in the past or the present.

Residents in the area may see workers placing probes in the soil on city easements later this fall and into next year, he said. Those probes will collect samples to make sure that vapors are not present in the soil. Those vapors could collect in crawl spaces or basements, he said. So far, any vapors detected have been at very low levels and are not a health threat.

Later next year, five more sites for wells to pump groundwater to the surface, treat it and return it to surface streams or groundwater will be built. 

He assured residents that the process called “Pump and Treat” is safe and does not expose the public to TCE because the chemical dissipates readily when exposed to the air. 

Sites for the extraction wells have not been determined. UP scientists are working with the City of Wichita to identify locations where wells can be drilled and sheds built to house the treatment equipment.

“There will have to be sheds that will be visible around the community, but we are working on ways that we might be able to beautify those so they are not unsightly,” he told residents. “One suggestion is that we engage local artists to paint murals on the outside walls.”

The search for justice

Community members expressed frustration at the slow rate of progress and fury that they were not made aware of the danger to their health posed by the contamination.

County commissioner Ryan Baty assured angry residents that their voices are being heard.

“For 40 years, there was an injustice in this community,” he said. “You have a right to be angry. The best thing we can do moving forward is to bring justice. But what does justice look like? We don’t know. What we do know is that we can make sure this site is cleaned up and that nobody remains at risk.”

City councilman Brandon Johnson assured residents that any and all their questions would be answered. He urged residents to collect literature describing the clean-up process and to visit with leaders from Grace Med, HealthCore and Hunter Health, who are providing health screenings at no cost to community  members who want them. 

“If those tests indicate the need for more medical treatment, then we’re working to provide that too,” he said.

P.J. Griekspoor is a semi-retired veteran journalist with 55 years experience in writing and editing in Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, North Carolina and Wichita.  She spent 18 years at the Wichita Eagle...