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State issues final $13.9 million cleanup plan for toxic site at 29th and Grove

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 leaders and local elected officials say the state did not inform them of its final decision. Poor communication has been an ongoing complaint surrounding the cleanup. 

The state of Kansas is asking Union Pacific Railroad to spend $13.9 million dollars to clean up a contaminated rail yard and groundwater in Wichita.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment released its final corrective action decision for the 29th and Grove site on Feb. 2. The decision details a plan to cleanup the contamination.

Union Pacific, which signed a consent order to clean up the site, is responsible for the costs of the cleanup.

The Union Pacific railyard at 29th and Grove has a chemical in its soil and groundwater known as trichloroethene, which is linked to kidney cancer. The chemical has also infiltrated a 2.9-mile long plume of groundwater south of the rail yard site, all the way to Murdock Avenue.

It runs through many historically Black neighborhoods northeast of downtown Wichita.

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

The final cleanup plan is the same one the state recommended in its August 2022 draft cleanup plan. It requires Union Pacific to:

  • Remove remaining 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 by residents in contaminated areas.

The plan was released on the state’s website Feb. 2. Wichita City Council member Brandon Johnson, whose district includes the rail yard, said he had not received any notification of the final cleanup plan when reached by KMUW on Wednesday.

“That is concerning that the plan is out, and we didn’t know about it,” Johnson said.

Aujanae Bennett is president of the Northeast Millair neighborhood association. The neighborhood is directly south of the rail yard. She said she had not been informed of the state’s final decision either.

The spill is estimated to have occurred in the 1970s or '80s, though city officials first recorded it in 1994. Union Pacific signed a consent order to clean up the site in 2002.

The state’s Community Relations Plan for the 29th and Grove site was created in 2003 to inform residents and elected officials of the contamination. The plan says the state would notify City Council members and neighborhood association leaders of the final cleanup action.

An investigation published by KMUW and the Wichita Beacon in January found that the state failed to follow through on several other aspects of its community relations plan from 2003 to 2022. After holding a public meeting in 2003, the state did not hold another about the contamination at 29th and Grove until 2022.

The state’s final cleanup plan discarded several other remediation options, two of which were more expensive and one of which was less expensive than the one chosen.

The final plan also included a summary of comments the public submitted to the KDHE in response to the state’s August 2022 draft cleanup plan. It stated that “the comments received did not cause a significant change to the selection of the remedy.”

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.