A Kansas agency in 2003 created a plan to inform a predominantly Black neighborhood in Wichita about toxic groundwater in their community. It failed to follow through on several key aspects.
by Trace Salzbrenner and Celia Hack
This story was written in collaboration with KMUW’s newsroom.
When Ruby Ligon and her husband chose their ranch-style home in 1967 in Wichita’s Northeast Millair neighborhood, they picked it because they thought it was safe. It was located on a dead-end street, perfect for kids to ride their bikes.
They raised their children there unaware that sometime in the 1970s or 1980s, a rail yard a half-mile north of the home was leaking toxic chemicals into the groundwater.
In 1998, the state traced the source of the chemical to the Union Pacific rail yard near 29th and Grove. By 2003, the state put together a plan to inform the community of the danger.
But many who live in the area say they heard little or nothing about the contamination until last year.
“I’m just so angry because they didn’t tell us about it,” Ligon said. “I don’t know, I feel like they said, ‘It’s OK if you just go and die.’”
The chemical spill came to the attention of the predominantly Black neighborhood last fall, when the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) scheduled public meetings on the cleanup efforts.
In November, KMUW and The Wichita Beacon requested records detailing what the state did to inform the public of the contamination. The state produced limited evidence that it followed through on key aspects of its own communications plan between 2003 and 2022.
After one public meeting in 2003, the state did not hold another about the contamination at 29th and Grove until 2022.
KDHE acknowledged its failure to fulfill some of the plan’s steps, including notifying residents of a key project milestone, but said it followed through on most parts.
“KDHE has followed the (community relations plan) largely in all other steps throughout the project, and the documents were made available online upon being finalized,” wrote Philip Harris, deputy communications director at KDHE, in an email to KMUW and The Wichita Beacon.
A perfect home that wasn’t
When Ligon and her husband first moved into their home, the couple only had one child. The two-bedroom home was an upgrade from the one-bedroom they previously rented. She remembers how excited she was when the house was finally theirs: “It was perfect.”
But since learning about the chemical contaminating her neighborhood’s groundwater, she feels betrayed, and her sense of safety shattered.
The state thinks that trichloroethylene, a carcinogenic chemical known as TCE, was spilled at the Union Pacific rail yard at some point when Ligon’s kids were growing up in the ’70s and ’80s. The chemical, used as a metal degreaser, reached levels in the groundwater thousands of times higher than regulations allow. It flowed south, creating a plume of contaminated water 2.9 miles long.
The spill wasn’t detected until 1994, when the city of Wichita undertook environmental investigations as it began developing East 21st Street. The discovery led KDHE to investigate the source of the abnormally high TCE levels in 1998. KDHE determined it came from a Union Pacific rail yard at 29th and Grove.
By 2002, Union Pacific entered into a consent order with the state to investigate the contamination. The order dictated that Union Pacific would take responsibility for the spill’s cleanup under KDHE’s supervision.
The order also determined that the cleanup would be conducted under federal guidelines, which required the state to create a community relations plan to help inform residents about the work. According to the guidelines, a plan would reduce “the likelihood of conflict arising from a lack of information, misinformation, or speculation.”
Decades pass with families unaware
Ligon’s home is filled with the markers of time from a life well-lived: photos of her children and grandchildren line the walls, while magnets gathered from travels across the U.S. and Europe cover her fridge. In between, knickknacks gathered from secondhand stores and garage sales, pieces of mismatched art and small sculptures fill the spaces.
In the years their three children grew, Ruby and her husband expanded their home, adding more rooms, storage and a well to supply water for the garden. Ruby’s husband installed it himself, driving the hole into the groundwater.
“We had to do the stuff ourselves because we didn’t have a bunch of money,” Ligon said.
The well brought up groundwater to water the yard. It fed the sprinkler her kids would play in and the hose they would drink from.
“They would go out there with their little shorts on in the evenings,” Ligon said. “That was their pool.”
Swimming and playing in contaminated well water is one of the actions KDHE has advised against. But Ligon didn’t know that. Not until after her children were grown did the state meet with residents.
In 2003, KDHE officials attended a breakfast meeting for City Council District 1 to discuss the 29th and Grove site.
At the meeting, state officials identified five residents who served as a focus group. The residents listed several community concerns, from health effects to the potential for adverse impact to property values.
They also suggested what to include in a community relations plan: fact sheets, workshops to understand technical environmental concepts, communications with local media, regular public meetings about the site at the Atwater Neighborhood City Hall.
Two months later, the state released a community relations plan for 29th and Grove. It included many of the components residents had asked for:
Contacting city officials, county officials, media, and local residents about project milestones.
Sharing digestible fact sheets about the cleanup’s progress, water quality issues, and regulatory issues with the community and media.
Holding public availability sessions to provide updates and answer questions about the site, depending on the community’s interest.
The March 2003 breakfast meeting was the first between the state and the general public about the contaminated site at 29th and Grove. There would not be another until September 2022, according to Mary Daily, a professional geologist with KDHE.
What the documents showed
Ligon currently lives with her adopted adult son, who helps care for her. Her three other children are now scattered across the Midwest. After her husband passed away in the 1980s from cancer, Ligon considered selling the home and moving someplace new.
She ultimately decided to stay where she was, in the home, she helped build. But now she says if she had known about the groundwater, she would have left.
“If they held a meeting in 2003, I ain’t heard nothing about it,” Ligon said when asked about the community relations plan. “And I’ve lived here since 1967.”
KMUW and The Wichita Beacon asked KDHE for any information it distributed under its community relations plan to media, elected officials, government employees, and other community members between 2003 and last year.
KDHE’s response to the formal open records request yielded no evidence that it completed several of the community relations plan’s key goals.
One of those goals was to inform the public of key cleanup milestones, including the remedial investigation, which assesses the site’s risk to human health. The investigation was completed in June 2006, yet no documents are dated from that year.
When asked about the failure to notify the public of its completion, Harris called it “unfortunate” but said it is not typical to mail notifications out about remedial investigation results.
The state’s 2003 community relations plan included a contact list of at least 41 media outlets and 17 elected officials, including City Council members and county commissioners. Documents in response to the open records request showed that before 2022, only two elected officials — the late state Sen. U.L. Gooch and the late state Rep. Ruby Gilbert — received written notifications about the 29th and Grove site.
KDHE said it was in contact with city officials throughout the project, but city officials did not relay any community concerns.
From 2007 to 2017, Lavonta Williams represented the district with the contamination on Wichita’s City Council. She said she doesn’t “recall any information pertaining to this contamination site” ever reaching her.
Council member Brandon Johnson, who took Williams’ place when she left office, said he didn’t hear from KDHE about the 29th and Grove site until 2022.
No documents were addressed to media outlets before 2022, though one document showed a representative from The Community Voice contacted the state about the contamination in March 2003.
Harris wrote that the agency regrets that this portion was not followed through.
Environmental law professor Steve Gold, who works at Rutgers University, said Kansas’ lack of communication with the public falls short of best practices.
“This does not seem to have been maybe the best way to keep the public involved with a site that actually matters,” Gold said.
“Where there are implications about, for instance, what to do with the water that comes out of your well … even as little as you shouldn’t put it in your swimming pool. That would be the kind of thing that it would’ve been nice for the public to know.”
What the state did do
Documents did show evidence of KDHE communicating with the city of Wichita employees in 2003 about accessing city property to conduct environmental investigations. The former president of the Northeast Millair Neighborhood Association and at least eight other households in the neighborhood were also contacted about the TCE contamination in March 2004.
The state shared four other documents from 2003, 2004, and 2012 concerning fieldwork near the 29th and Grove site and indoor air quality testing. A representative from KDHE said that it distributed these notices to residents and businesses door-to-door.
The state also assigned the Maya Angelou Northeast Branch of the public library as an information repository, where the public could access significant documents about the 29th and Grove site.
‘The time frame has been too long’
Since she learned about the dangers associated with the groundwater contamination last fall, Ligon said she started thinking about her kidney issues and asthma. She wonders how much of that could have been caused by TCE, which has been known to cause kidney and respiratory issues. She worried about her kids. While there is no direct proof that TCE hurt her family, the thought was overwhelming. Add to that the fear that she can’t sell her home now if she wanted to.
“I can’t go anywhere now, I’m stuck here,” Ligon said.
The state completed a draft of its cleanup plan last year. Under federal law, that’s the event that triggers public engagement, said Gold, the environmental law professor at Rutgers.
“The primary absolute minimum obligation that an agency has is to (make) available to the public a proposed plan for the final cleanup and accept and consider public comment on that before making a final decision,” Gold said.
Federal officials — U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran and U.S. Rep. Ron Estes — received notification last year, as did a City Council member and county commissioner. Neighborhood associations, churches, schools, and newspapers were included on the list, too.
The state held several public meetings in late 2022 about the site. At one in November, it brought in an array of state officials and experts, printed out fact sheets, and sought to answer questions the public had.
Residents were upset to learn the state had known about the problem for more than 20 years.
“The time frame has been too long,” said Aujanae Bennett, president of the Northeast Millair Neighborhood Association, at the November meeting. “There is no excuse for there being 28 years of KDHE knowing this and not making it known to us who live here.”
In handouts provided to residents, the state acknowledged the need to regain trust.
“KDHE recognizes that community outreach regarding the 29th and Grove Site needs to improve going forward,” one fact sheet shared in the November 2022 public meeting wrote.
But for many, like Ligon, it may be too late. She’s not sure what it would take to get her trust back.
“For them to do that and not tell us about it for all these years?” Ligon said, “It doesn’t make sense.”