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Wichita, Kansas, You've Got Contamination
A Leak of Chemicals At The Union Pacific Rail Yard About 30 Years Ago May Be Causing Higher Rates of Cancer
A failure of communication about a contaminated site…. Geez, there are so many towns experiencing this kind of breakdown.
It pains me to see another community just learning about toxins in their hometown.
Kansas will always hold a special place in my heart. I was raised there, in the land of sprawling wheat fields and bright yellow sunflowers. I grew up in Lawrence, between the banks of the Kansas and Wakarusa Rivers, just a few hours away from Wichita, the largest city in the state with almost 400,000 residents.
So you know alarm bells rang out when I came across a story about a community meeting in Wichita last Friday, where people felt frustrated. They were looking for answers about a contaminated site and potential risks to their health but like so many communities got more lip service than real help.
Let’s back up for a moment.
Earlier this month, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) released the results of a health study conducted on an area known as “the 29th and Grove environmental site” in Wichita. The site has contamination that, the KDHE says, originated with a leak of chemicals at the Union Pacific rail yard more than 30 years ago.
After a request from the community, KDHE performed the health study on 2,793 addresses representing the affected area.
The study had three key findings:
The rate of liver cancer was higher in that area than in Sedgwick County or Kansas.
In particular, the rate of liver cancer among non-Hispanic Black people in the area was more than twice the rate compared to the same population in Kansas.
Rates of low birthweight among infants in the area were higher than in the rest of Kansas, though those rates decreased from 2000 to 2021.
Once the results of were released, the local health department told people who live in the affected area to get tested for cancer, but they weren't told how to pay for those tests. Are you kidding me?!
Here’s what the report says about the contamination:
The contaminants of concern are trichloroethene (TCE) and its breakdown products including 1,2-dichoroethene, 1,1-dichlorothene, and vinyl chloride. TCE is a solvent commonly used for metal degreasing.
Groundwater sampling shows that TCE has travelled over the years through the soil and into the water table deep below ground. In addition to the chemicals associated with the 29th and Grove spill, testing of the groundwater also detected tetrachloroethene (PCE) which may be due to contamination from six nearby, and now closed, dry-cleaning sites.
“Repeated (chronic) or prolonged exposure to TCE has been associated with effects in the liver, kidneys, immune system, and central nervous system,” according to an EPA fact sheet.
The EPA also says that PCE presents an unreasonable risk of injury to human health and that the health effects associated with PCE exposures are severe and potentially irreversible, specifically neurotoxicity and cancer.
About 100 people attended last Friday’s meeting, hoping to learn more about the contamination and potential risks to their health.
Some in the audience were confused about why railroad officials or the KDHE did not do more get people to avoid the immediate spill area. How about some signs? Some informational packets?
Based on results from the new study, local leaders are warning people in that area not to use well water.
“There are contaminants in the groundwater, and I want you all to know that,” Wichita City Council Member Brandon Johnson said during a news conference after the health study was released.
Johnson said the contamination was initially discovered as the City was looking at the redevelopment of East 21st Street in 1994, and that the contamination may actually date as far back to the 1970s.
After the contamination was discovered, KDHE began working with Union Pacific on the investigation and remediation efforts to address it.
The people impacted by the contamination at this site deserve to know exactly what’s going on and need assistance getting proper health care.
KDHE says it will hold another meeting about this issue in June, and I encourage everyone in the area to attend and bring their questions and concerns. Check out our article all about town meetings and how to prepare for them here.
When the people come together and speak out, you can make action for the better.
Community members are encouraged to visit the KDHE’s webpage on the 29th and Grove site: https://www.kdhe.ks.gov/1938/29th-and-Grove-Site for background on the incident, information on the Corrective Action Plan, and FAQs about impacts of the contamination on public health.
Questions or comments regarding this investigation may be directed to Farah Ahmed at Farah.Ahmed@ks.gov.
FYI: Well Water
If your water comes from a private or community well rather than a municipality, then it’s up to you to maintain the safety of your water. The EPA does help with information on how to maintain your well here: www.epa.gov/privatewells.
If you can’t find what you need, try contacting your local health or environmental department and request a list of the state-certified (licensed) laboratories in your area that test water. Get to know your watershed and be aware of the industrial and agricultural businesses located nearby that might pose risks to the quality of your well water.
It can be shocking to learn that there’s contamination in your community and you might be wondering how to get more involved with these criticial issues. You may already have a local community group or nonprofit working to improve the water quality in your neighborhood. Join them!
Search for local groups or contact national organizations like the Clean Water Network, Waterkeeper Alliance, or Clean Water Action and ask how you can get involved and help. Let these groups know if there’s a company you suspect might be polluting or tell them about local issues and see how they can help put pressure on the right organizations to follow laws and help make change happen.
Whatcha think about what’s going on in Wichita? Sound similar to your town? Let’s talk solutions in the comments section below.