© 2024 KMUW
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

At a tense public meeting, Union Pacific proposes more air quality testing of contamination site

Most seats were filled at a public meeting about the groundwater contamination on Saturday.
Celia Hack
Most seats were filled at a public meeting about the groundwater contamination on Saturday.

The meeting devolved after residents were asked to share feedback or questions in writing or at staffed tables instead of being allowed to address the entire room. 

Union Pacific Railroad is proposing a plan to do more air quality and soil vapor tests above a 2.9-mile plume of contaminated groundwater in northeast Wichita, representatives said at a public meeting Saturday.

The groundwater is contaminated with trichloroethene, or TCE, a carcinogenic chemical that can evaporate into the soil and air. The contamination comes from the Union Pacific rail yard at 29th and Grove, and it runs through several historically Black neighborhoods.

Contaminated groundwater plume
Kansas Department of Health and Environment
The plume of contaminated groundwater spreads 2.9 miles south of the rail yard.

John Shonfelt, who works for a consulting group hired by Union Pacific, says the company will focus on testing the gas found in soil underneath or near buildings.

“If there’s an issue being caused by TCE in groundwater, you find it in the soil vapor first before it can continue to migrate up,” said Shonfelt, senior project manager for Arcadis, Union Pacific’s consultant.

Union Pacific plans to test five schools, daycare centers and nursing homes as well as houses between 10th and 19th Streets. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment still needs to approve Union Pacific’s proposed testing plan.

Previous indoor air quality tests took place in 2004, 2009, 2012 and 2013. The state says these tests showed no health risk from TCE vapor.

“There were no detections or exceedances of air quality conditions back then, but we’re going to go back and re-test those,” Shonfelt said.

The air quality standard became more stringent between 2009 and 2012. Some air quality tests from three houses in 2004 showed TCE levels above KDHE’s current standard, but the levels fell within the standard at the time.

The contamination was first discovered by city environmental officials in 1994. KDHE identified Union Pacific as the source of the contamination in 1998. But most community members didn’t learn about the contamination at 29th and Grove until last fall.

The state created a community relations plan in 2003 to inform residents, but failed to follow through on several key aspects of it, including notifying certain elected officials.

The decades it took for residents to learn about the contamination have meant that, for many, trust is in short supply. Sarah Myers, who lives in the area, said Saturday’s meeting didn’t help.

“The feel of the space today was… We don’t care about your 40 years of opinions or frustrations,” Myers said. “Write it down on the white boards that we’ve provided for you. … And if not, you can go talk to some of these potentially trained people to answer public questions that may be a little tricky.”

Sites where Union Pacific is proposing to test indoor air quality or soil vapor.
Union Pacific
Sites where Union Pacific is proposing to test indoor air quality or soil vapor.

People at the meeting were asked to write comments down or share their questions with individual staffers at tables around the room, rather than speaking in front of the entire crowd. Volunteers from the Kansas Leadership Center helped facilitate the meeting.

Democratic State Rep. Ford Carr said he met with KDHE and city representatives about how the meeting would be conducted and encouraged them to hold a public forum.

“To just simply address the masses of the crowd briefly and then send people in various directions — I thought we clarified that that wasn’t the way to do it,” Carr said. “We should’ve had the open forum.”

KDHE spokesman Matt Lara said the department opted for individual tables instead of a public forum so that people could have one-on-one conversations, “rather than us speaking at people.”

At the meeting, Shonfelt also spoke about a timeline for the clean-up, which is estimated to take about 10 years. Arcadis is currently in the clean-up’s design phase, in which the company is completing work plans and engineering designs before construction begins.

In a written statement, Union Pacific said the company is “committed to moving forward in an open and transparent manner as we begin the final phases of the cleanup effort. We’re ready to finish the job.”

Celia Hack is a general assignment reporter for KMUW. Before KMUW, she worked at The Wichita Beacon covering local government and as a freelancer for The Shawnee Mission Post and the Kansas Leadership Center’s The Journal. She is originally from Westwood, Kansas, but Wichita is her home now.