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‘Somebody should be held accountable’: Community angered at contamination in northeast Wichita

Community members expressed concern about contamination at 29th and Grove at a meeting with state and local officials Saturday.
Celia Hack
Community members expressed concern about contamination at 29th and Grove at a meeting with state and local officials Saturday.

Community members asked why it took so long to alert residents of contaminated groundwater at a toxic site in Wichita.

Community members questioned state and local officials at a meeting Saturday about why it took so long to alert residents of groundwater contamination in northeast Wichita.

The contamination stems from a rail yard at 29th and Grove, which is owned by Union Pacific railroad. A carcinogenic chemical known as trichloroethene (TCE, also known as trichloroethylene) has been found in the site’s soil and in groundwater flowing 2.9 miles south of the site, all the way to Murdock Avenue. The groundwater is separate from the city’s public water supply.

“I’ve lived in this community for 58 years, my entire life, and I’ve never known anything about this,” said Aujanae Bennet, president of a neighborhood association directly south of the railyard.

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

“The time frame has been too long. There is no excuse for there being 28 years of KDHE [Kansas Department of Health and Environment] knowing this and not making it known to us who live here.”

State officials don’t have an exact date when the spill happened but estimate it took place in the 1970s or ’80s. The spill was first investigatedin 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.

Conversations about the site are surfacing now because the state issued a draft clean-up plan in August of this year.

At Saturday’s meeting, residents stressed that they should have been involved in the conversation before 2022.

“Somebody should be held accountable for this,” said James Roseboro, vice president of the Wichita Independent Neighborhoods association. He added that he’s concerned that development has taken place in areas with contaminated groundwater following the spill. That includes a public school, Gordon Parks Academy.

Mary Daily, a professional geologist with KDHE, said that the Wichita school district was informed of the contamination and constructed Gordon Parks Academy with protective barriers to prevent contamination from getting inside the building.

In a fact sheet handed out at the meeting, KDHE wrote that it “recognizes that community outreach regarding the 29th and Grove Site needs to improve going forward.”

Robynn Tysver, a representative from Union Pacific railroad, stated that the company understands the neighborhood's concerns.

“We are ready to finish the proposed remediation in partnership with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, and we are committed to doing so with community engagement and feedback,” Tysver wrote in an email to KMUW.

Community member Kiah Duggins called on the state, city and Union Pacific railroad to commit money to repair harm that’s been done to Black communities’ health as a result of the contamination. The contaminated groundwater runs through many historically Black neighborhoods that are northeast of downtown Wichita.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that exposure to TCE can cause, among other things, kidney cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and heart issues. According to KDHE, people living and working in the area of contamination are not exposed to contaminated soil or groundwater from the spill, unless they use a groundwater well for drinking or bathing. All houses in the area receive water from the city of Wichita.

Allison Herring, the district environmental administrator for KDHE in South Central Kansas, said that the state is currently conducting a study of the contamination’s health impacts on the community. Once that study is complete, different state and government programs could be pulled in to address the findings, she added.

A representative from Union Pacific said that the railroad supports the community through its foundation.

At the meeting, officials also shared that they plan to test K-96 Lake, a fishing lake directly north of the contaminated site, in response to community concerns. The state has not previously tested the lake for contamination because the groundwater runs south instead of north toward the lake.

Additionally, officials stressed that residents with wells in their yard — whether drinking water wells or lawn-and-garden wells — should contact the state if they would like their well-water tested.

Richard Ruth, president of Wichita Independent Neighborhoods, asked the state why it could not contact 16 houses that have registered lawn-and-garden wells in the contaminated area itself.

In response, Herring said that KDHE is struggling with funding and understaffing.

“KDHE would appreciate any extra funding and any extra staff that anyone could get for us,” Herring said. “... We need more staff to handle all of the projects we have.

“Our regulations started 50 years ago, and we’ve been trying to clean up 150 years of contamination since then. We wish we could do more, and we wish we could do it quicker.”

Patrick Penn, a Kansas state representative who attended the meeting, said that KDHE’s staffing levels were not his primary concern related to the contamination.

“Right now, the biggest thing I’m worried about are the ill effects of what this spill has done, the amount of time that has lapsed before anyone was notified and what are the ill effects that happened in that interregnum,” Penn said. “ … I’m more concerned what’s happening with the people than necessarily bureaucracy.”

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.