Cleanup planned for decades-long contamination impacting NE Wichita neighborhood

KDHE and the City of Wichita will host a meeting for residents regarding the clean-up on Nov. 5.
Published: Oct. 5, 2022 at 6:58 PM CDT
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WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - The City of Wichita and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) are seeking input on cleaning up contaminated groundwater in a northeast Wichita neighborhood.

The nearly $14 million project would clean up a contaminant that’s been there for decades, potentially causing life-threatening health issues in people who live in the Millair neighborhood near 21st and Hillside. The cause of the contamination: the Union Pacific railyard at 29th and Grove.

The contaminant is called trichloroethylene, commonly used to degrease metals. It can also cause serious health problems, including kidney cancer.

In the early 1990s, the contaminant was found in the area during the revitalization of 21st Street. KDHE traced the cause back to the UP railyard. That means the contamination spread more than two miles and potentially impacted thousands of lives.

Millair Neighborhood Association President Aujanae Bennett has called the neighborhood home for her entire life.

“This runs 2.9 miles across historic northeast Wichita where I grew up, which means I’ve been exposed to this most of my life,” Bennett said.

But it wasn’t until last month that she learned the groundwater and soil there were toxic.

“It’s sitting in the football field. The vapors, the soil and everything is contaminated over at the football field at Gordon Park, the Boys and Girls Club, and this has been known,” Bennett said. “The last testing was nearly a decade ago.”

Since learning about the presence of trichloroethylene stretching from the 29th and Grove railyard down to Murdock, Bennett’s done a lot of research and has personally spoken with elected officials and the KDHE. While a few contaminant efforts have been made over the years, Bennett said most people in the Millair neighborhood were unaware this was an issue.

She’s frustrated it’s taken decades to fix.

“So many of us have had loved ones, or even ourselves have to deal with serious health issues such as cancer and heart disease and respiratory issues and just a conglomeration of things,” Bennett said. “And not to find out that [the contaminant] could be a potential culprit of some of that…”

Community advocates and elected officials agree it’s taken far too long to address the problem.

“For me, this is an environmental injustice,” said former Wichita City Councilmember Lavonta Williams.

While Bennett is glad to see something being done, she said the cleanup efforts don’t attempt to explain how many people could’ve been impacted by the contaminant over the past few decades, since many were unaware until recently that it even existed.

“How can we intelligently make comments about (the) cleanup until we understand the full impact of the contamination itself?” Bennett said.

With the cleanup, the City of Wichita is giving out flyers to everyone in the area with information on the next KDHE meeting, set for Nov. 5.