‘A systemic failure of communication’: Elected leaders call for legislation in wake of health study
City, county and state elected officials condemned the state’s communication surrounding a contaminated site northeast of downtown Wichita and called for improvement going forward.
State, county and local officials are calling for legislation to improve communications around toxic sites, following the release of a study that showed disparate health outcomes among people living above contaminated groundwater in Wichita.
The source of the contamination is the Union Pacific railyard at 29th and Grove, which has a chemical in its soil and groundwater known as trichloroethene. The chemical has infiltrated a 2.9-mile long plume of groundwater south of the rail yard site, through several of Wichita's historically Black neighborhoods.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment released a study Friday that found that rates of liver cancer and low birthweights are higher among people living above the toxic groundwater plume. Both of the health outcomes are associated with exposure to trichloroethene (TCE), though the state said it’s uncertain whether the health disparities were caused by the chemical.
Community members learned about the contamination last fall. But the site was first discovered by the city of Wichita in 1994, and the KDHE identified Union Pacific as the source of contamination in 1998. The state created a community relations plan to inform residents, but failed to follow through on several key aspects of it, including notifying certain elected officials.
“This has really been a systematic failure of communication,” said Ryan Baty, a Sedgwick County Commissioner whose district includes the area where the spill occurred. “This has been a failure. … We have elected officials that were in office that were never made aware of this situation.”
Kansas Rep. Ford Carr and Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau said they would work with the legislature in the next session to pass a bill that would improve communication about contaminated sites in Sedgwick County and around the state. In Sedgwick County alone, there are more than 200 contaminated sites.
“What I would like to see … is that we pass legislation to be sure that we don’t have a situation like this that occurs again,” Carr said. “... Because what’s taken place so far is there’s been no consequence. People have known and for whatever reason, they chose to keep that in a closed circle of individuals.”
City Council member Brandon Johnson said he would like to ensure that city, county and state elected officials receive updates every two years about any contaminated sites in their districts. That way, they can communicate updates with their constituents.
Elected officials were also frustrated that the state’s health study was unable to confirm a connection between trichloroethene and the increased liver cancer rates and low birthweights in the community.
“To say there’s no causality, just to present data and say, ‘Here you are’ – I’m going to ask questions,” Baty said. “I’m going to have fears. And that’s the problem when you have problems with communication, is then you have no trust. And it impacts credibility.”
Some community members also felt the study’s reference to disparate heath outcomes for minority and low-income communities took the attention off of the health impacts caused by TCE.
“It appears they’re trying to say what’s going on with this spill is because of the low income (population),” said Treatha Brown-Foster, a member of the Northeast Millair Neighborhood Association.
The report's conclusion noted the necessity of understanding social determinants of health — such as education and economics — and how these can increase the risk of chronic diseases. Lavonta Williams, a former city council member, said she recognized that social determinants can impact health outcomes, but she felt calling attention to it in the report distracted from the biggest issue.
“That has nothing to do with contaminated water,” Williams said. "...The social determinants of health had nothing to with this other than the possibility of not having insurance, not being able to go to a doctor."
Local officials said that they would seek funding to bring in resources like cancer screenings to the affected neighborhoods.
Community members who attended the meeting continued to express concern over the long period of time it took to share information, as well as the potential health impacts.
Rose Harris lives in the neighborhood south of 29th and Grove. She said her daughter had to have a liver transplant years ago, which cost thousands of dollars.
Her neighbor, Hazel Carlis, said she used to fish at the lake just north of the contaminated site.
Leaders said that more information and resources would be forthcoming. But Johnson stressed that anyone who has a groundwater well in the plume should avoid using it.
“Anybody who is using well water on their lawns, although the scientists have indicated in our reports that it's safe, I am saying you should not do that,” Johnson said. “I know it costs more to use city water. Our city water's clean. … Please switch to city water.”