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Spurred by community concerns, the EPA brings its focus on environmental justice to Wichita

Connie's Mexico Cafe sits across the street from an industrial corridor that houses four sets of railroad tracks.
Celia Hack
Connie's Mexico Cafe sits across the street from an industrial corridor that houses four sets of railroad tracks.

Residents who live and work near industry harbor a litany of concerns about its environmental impacts. Some are engaged in conversations with the EPA about what can be done. 

A vibrant mural of Our Lady of Guadalupe, replete with flourishing roses, beckons customers into Connie’s Mexico Cafe at 21st and Broadway.

Across the street, the colorful ambiance fades into the grays and browns of four sets of railroad tracks, a meat processing plant and a former pet treat factory that has caught fire three times since 2011.

Connie’s benefits from the clientele of truckers and nearby factory workers, said Cici Garcia, the general manager. But it suffers from the smoke and smells coming from the neighboring industry.

“A lot of customers could, as they're coming in, you can kind of smell it,” Garcia said. “... My sister says it's not as strong as it used to be, but you still have that smell of smoke.”

Employment at railroads and meatpacking plants was a central aspect behind the historical growth of Wichita’s North End, which has a large Latino population. But Garcia worries the industries at the heart of the area’s history could hinder the neighborhood, commonly known as NoMar, from growing economically.

“We've been accustomed to it,” Garcia said. “But as time goes on, and now that the … NoMar district is developing in this area, that's been more of a concern to me. Because they’re revitalizing this whole area.”

Garcia’s concerns about pollution are warranted, federal data shows. The census tract where Connie’s is located is close to facilities that use extremely hazardous substances. And, compared to the rest of the state, it has high levels of ozone, wastewater discharge and proximity to hazardous waste.

And it’s far from the only one. A federal tool that measures economic and environmental factors like pollution found Sedgwick County contains the largest number of disadvantaged census tracts in Kansas – 45, or about 19 percent of the county.

Most are in Wichita’s central, older neighborhoods with low-income populations. Many have elevated rates of asthma and proximity to other environmental burdens when compared to the rest of the state – high levels of traffic, underground storage tanks or exhaust from diesel engines.

“The city of Wichita is a highly industrialized community. You know, again, strong railroad system,” said Monica Espinosa, the EPA’s environmental justice coordinator for the Midwest region.

“Some of the different industries that have been there have had disproportionate impacts – health, economic and social – on, in particular, low-income and/or communities of color such as the African American community, as well as the Latino or Hispanic community.”

Espinosa says the EPA is working to address what’s commonly known as environmental injustice: where some communities are exposed to heightened levels of pollution and the corresponding health risks.

The EPA’s Midwest office recently launched an environmental justice division, elevating the topic to the same level as its air or water divisions. And President Joe Biden’s administration has committed to a program called Justice40, which directs 40% of money from major spending measures like the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to disadvantaged communities.

EPA gets involved as community raises environmental concerns

Wichita community members began contacting the EPA in 2022 after learning about groundwater contamination beneath several historically Black neighborhoods. A chemical spill happened decades ago near 29th and Grove, which is now a Union Pacific railyard.

“Wichita reached out to us,” said Kimberly Burr, the EPA’s rural outreach coordinator for the Midwest region. “We've had letters, we've had phone calls, we've had emails from folks that live in and around Wichita requesting assistance or information or education on environmental concerns in Wichita.”

A train near the Union Pacific rail yard at 29th and Grove.
Celia Hack
A train near the Union Pacific rail yard at 29th and Grove.

Neighborhood leader Aujanae Bennett felt the groundwater contamination and other pollution in her community was a form of environmental racism.

“It's like we are invisible to them,” Bennett said. “It's like this is just the empty lot. It has become the dumping ground for toxicity in this city.”

Union Pacific said in a statement to KMUW that it works collaboratively with federal, state and local authorities. It said it expects to continue working with the EPA as the agency seeks “wider-ranging answers to broader challenges.”

EPA staffers visited Wichita last fall, touring areas of community concern and meeting with residents about their priorities. Bennett wants the groundwater contamination cleaned up and improved communication about pollution in her neighborhood.

She’s also worried about air quality. Her community already has high levels of exhaust from diesel engines compared to the rest of the state, and a new truck stop is under construction.

Residents of the North End, on the opposite side of the highway from Bennett, have a set of concerns, too. Many have long been frustrated by traffic delays caused by train crossings on 21st Street, an issue the U.S. Department of Transportation has committed $1 million to studying. Monique Garcia, who is CiCi’s sister, said train blockages have economic impacts on top of the unhealthy tailpipe emissions that result from cars idling.

“That affects the ability for folks to come to the North End, to be able to eat here or shop here,” she said.

Robert Chavez and Ron Rosales are advocates for veterans and the North End. They want to develop Pat Garcia Veterans Memorial Park near 25th and Broadway as a safe place for the community to exercise outdoors. The city recently opened a new outdoor gym at the park.

But Chavez and Rosales also want to ensure that it’s not polluted by the nearby industrial corridor, which is the site of a former oil refinery and another plume of contaminated groundwater. The two drafted a letter to the EPA to request water and soil testing at the park and the creek running through it.

“When I was younger, we'd go down there and chase frogs and get them and that kind of stuff. But they're hard to find nowadays,” Rosales said. “When my kids were little, and I started to notice there was hardly any frogs around … I didn't let my kids go over there and play.”

Gary Janzen, the city’s director of Public Works and Utilities, wrote in an email that the city is in contact with the EPA and has “no reason to believe there are contaminations issues at Pat Garcia Park.”

Chavez said the conversation Wichita is having about environmental justice is bigger than the park – and bigger than North Wichita.

“Who am I to say what needs to happen in northeast Wichita, or southeast Wichita, or all areas of Wichita?” Chavez said. “How do we collectively work together to address our issues of environmental justice in Wichita? And that is where we begin this new direction and push for working together in community to address our issues.”

How is the federal government helping Wichita?   

The EPA says it hopes to inform Wichita of some of the available funding opportunities the federal government is offering.

The agency awarded Wichita State University $10 million last summer to start the Heartland Environmental Justice Center, which serves Kansas and three other Midwestern states. It’s one of 17 centers across the U.S., which are meant to help polluted communities navigate federal grant applications.

Michelle DeHaven is the center's program manager. She says the center is bringing community organizations together to discuss an application for a federal Brownfields job training grant, which helps residents develop skills to work in hazardous waste management and sustainable clean-up of polluted sites.

“We've been hosting a variety of meetings and kind of workshops to see which organizations would want to be involved in the project and what role they would play in that project,” DeHaven said. “Because it's a job training and placement program, we would need employers on board.”

Monique Garcia also wrote a letter of interest to the EPA, requesting an AmeriCorps member to come to Wichita to work on environmental justice projects.

But some residents say neither the EPA’s presence nor the environmental justice center has led to much concrete change, whether at the 29th and Grove contamination site or elsewhere. Bennett wants to see neighborhood air quality testing, soil testing and community gardens.

“I see no difference that it has made,” she said. “… As far as helping us learn to write grants and all of that – no. Help us deal with the issues of what is detrimental to the health of this community right now.”

Bennett said she contacted the center to get help setting up a nonprofit last year, but eventually went elsewhere because of lack of communication.

DeHaven said the organization does its best to respond quickly to community members, but is limited by a staff of five people that serves four states.

The organization is also in the process of hiring community engagement coordinators, one of whom will be in Wichita. The coordinators are meant to come from communities impacted by environmental injustice, said Jeff Severin, the Heartland Environmental Justice Center’s senior program manager.

Severin said community members’ frustration with the pace of progress is understandable.

“Unfortunately, a lot of times that change happens very slowly,” Severin said. “... But folks are engaging in new ways and working on these projects in new ways and establishing new organizations and putting themselves in a position where they can be successful at bringing in funding for the projects.”

Officials with EPA’s environmental justice division have a similar perspective. Espinosa said the biggest change is the community relationships the EPA has built in Wichita so far, through site visits and stakeholder calls – and these shouldn’t be overlooked.

“I think we do have some progress,” Espinosa said. “It's just hard to see it physically because it takes time for those actual cleanups and things to occur. But I think there is progress on the ground with relationships.”

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.