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The state of Kansas wants your feedback on a plan to clean up a toxic site in northeast Wichita

29th and Grove contamination2
Celia Hack
/
KMUW
A train near the Union Pacific rail yard at 29th and Grove.

Contamination at the 29th and Grove Union Pacific rail yard has extended into groundwater 2.9 miles south of the site.

The state of Kansas is asking residents to share feedback on a $13.9 million plan to clean up a contaminated rail yard in northeast Wichita by Oct. 16.

The 29th and Grove site, which is owned by Union Pacific, has a chemical known as trichloroethene in its soil and groundwater that is strongly linked to kidney cancer. In 2007, groundwater concentrations of the chemical at the site reached 86,000 times the standards set by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE). Concentrations in the soil reached over 8,000 times the standard.

Contaminated groundwater also extends in a 2.9-mile long plume south of the rail yard site, all the way to Murdock Avenue. This runs through many historically Black neighborhoods northeast of downtown Wichita.

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

This groundwater is separate from the city’s public water supply.

Since 2004, Union Pacific has taken multiple steps to clean up the rail yard site. This includes removing up to six feet of contaminated soil and a bioremediation program that uses bacteria and nutrients to break down contaminants until they are harmless.

And in 2009, Union Pacific installed a system along Murdock and east of I-135 to ensure the contaminated groundwater did not spread any further.

But Mary Daily, a professional geologist with Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said that the levels of contamination in the groundwater and soil is still too high — both at the rail yard site, and along the plume of groundwater. Tests from May 2021 showed the concentration of the chemical in the groundwater was still 164 times higher than the standard.

“There’s still groundwater contamination above our clean-up goals, which are the drinking water standards,” Daily said. “There’s still concentrations above those standards.”

There is also a risk that contaminated vapors from groundwater can infiltrate buildings, Daily said.

The state is recommending a $13.9 million plan for remediation, which Union Pacific will pay for. The plan would require Union Pacific to:

  • Remove more contaminated soil from the rail yard.
  • Implement a bioremediation program to clean up the soil and groundwater at the rail yard site. This will use bacteria and nutrients to break down contaminants until they are harmless.
  • Install a groundwater cleaning system along the plume of contaminated ground water south of the rail yard. This means installing wells to pump water above the surface, where it’s cleaned in tanks and then put back into the ground or a stream. 
  • Monitor groundwater at wells south of the rail yard.
  • Monitor surface water along nearby Chisholm Creek.
  • Prohibit the installation of new water wells in contaminated areas.

The state laid out other clean-up options, which it is not recommending. Those include excavating soil all the way to the bedrock at the rail yard, which has a higher concentration of the chemical. This option is more expensive.
Community members giving feedback on the plan said they wanted more time to share their thoughts on the proposal. The state originally gave residents until Sept. 16 to give feedback but pushed that back until Oct. 16 after a public meeting last week.

“Some of the people that attended the public meeting on September 8 requested an extension for the public comment period because they felt they had not received enough notice,” Daily wrote in an email to KMUW.

Aujanae Bennett, the Northeast Millair neighborhood association president, said one of her biggest concerns is that she had never heard of the contamination prior to last week’s meeting — despite living in the neighborhood directly south of Union Pacific rail yard since 1968.

“Why haven’t northeast Wichitans been informed since KDHE has been aware since 1994?” Bennett said.

The spill was first investigated in 1994, when the City of Wichita began redeveloping East 21st Street. Environmental investigations by the Wichita/Sedgwick County Health Department uncovered chemical contamination in the area.

By 1998, KDHE confirmed that the Union Pacific rail yard was the source of contamination. In 2002, Union Pacific entered into a consent order with the state to investigate the contamination and potential remediation options.

Bennett said she’s concerned about the health impact this may have had on her family and people in her neighborhood.

“I can give you a list of probably, just on my block where I grew up, seven or eight people who died because of kidney cancers or other cancers, including my father,” Bennett said.

Daily said the initial investigation and study to determine remediation options took so many years because the plume of water was so long and because the company changed consultants. A consultant for Union Pacific completed a human health risk assessment for the site. But Daily said the KDHE has not completed a study investigating cancer rates or other health indicators in the area affected.

“We haven’t had enough people ask for that kind of thing,” Daily said. She added that the impacted neighborhoods are served by the city water supply, which is not contaminated by the spill.

To share feedback, email Mary Daily at Mary.Daily@ks.gov or send postmarked mail to: 

Kansas Department of Health and Environment

Bureau of Environmental Remediation

Attention: Mary Daily, Professional Geologist

1000 SW Jackson Street, Suite 410

Topeka, Kansas 66612-1367

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.