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Law firm conducting health survey among Wichitans impacted by contaminated groundwater

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.

The groundwater is polluted with trichloroethylene, a carcinogenic chemical. 

An out-of-state law firm is conducting a health survey of people who have lived above a plume of contaminated groundwater in parts of Wichita.

“We’re looking for an overall assessment to see what kinds of cancer, how many people have the cancer, how long they’ve lived in the area,” said Wendy Kerner, an attorney with 1-800-Law-Firm, a national network of attorneys. “So there are numerous factors that can strengthen the link from their cancers or their debilitating illnesses to the trichloroethylene.”

Trichloroethylene (TCE, also known as trichloroethene) is a carcinogenic chemical that contaminated the groundwater as a result of a spill at a Union Pacific rail yard at 29th and Grove. It’s been found in a 2.9-mile long plume of groundwater from 29th Street to the north to Murdock Avenue to the south, and between I-135 to the east and Grove to the west.

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

The groundwater is separate from the city’s public water supply. According to KDHE, the groundwater does not present a risk to people living and working in the area unless they use a well for drinking or bathing. Contaminated vapors also present a risk.

Though the spill is estimated to have occurred in the 1970s or ’80s, the state issued a draft clean-up plan for the site last August. In response, many residents expressed concern about the contamination and its potential health implications.

Kerner traveled to Wichita from Colorado to conduct the survey alongside Northeast Millair neighborhood association president Aujanae Bennett. It asks residents who have lived, worked or attended school in the plume area whether they have been diagnosed with kidney cancer, liver cancer and other diseases.

“We want to inform them so that they can let their health professionals know as well,” said Kerner, who spoke with community members at Monday’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration. “And for people that may have never been tested for any kind of illness, they might want to consider being tested.”

Kerner says if enough people come forward with health concerns tied to the contamination, it could lead to legal action.

“Because Union Pacific is responsible for this spill, if the link is strong enough, we want them to be accountable for compensating these people who have been harmed,” Kerner said.

Union Pacific signed a consent order with the state of Kansas in 2002, in which the company agreed to investigate the contamination and clean it up.

The consent order specifies that Union Pacific does not admit liability for the contamination stemming from the 29th and Grove.

To take the health survey, visit this site.

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.