Union Pacific sued over chemical spill affecting Wichita neighborhoods near 29th and Grove

By Celia Hack

Wichita residents living above a chemical spill from Union Pacific Railroad face property damages and a loss of property value as a result of the company’s negligence, according to a federal lawsuit filed this week by law firms across the country.

The class-action lawsuit addresses a chemical spill at a Union Pacific rail yard near 29th and Grove, which many Wichita residents learned about last year. The spill – which contains trichloroethylene, a carcinogenic degreasing agent – contaminated the groundwater beneath about 2,800 addresses. The groundwater plume runs about three miles, from 29th Street to the north to Murdock Avenue to the south, through many historically Black neighborhoods.

“We’re concerned about the … impact on people’s home values,” said Chris Nidel, a lawyer with the Maryland-based Nidel & Nace firm, which helped file the lawsuit.

“Who wants to buy a house that is on this plume, when you can buy one three blocks away that goes to the same schools and has the same access to community but doesn’t live on this plume?”

Union Pacific Railroad signed a consent order with the state of Kansas in 2002 to clean up the contamination, but did not admit liability. Officials have estimated that the spill took place in the 1970s or 1980s, but no exact date has been shared.

The city of Wichita discovered the contamination in 1994. In 1998, the state of Kansas identified the Union Pacific rail yard as the source of contamination.

In a statement, Union Pacific wrote that it has worked closely with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment on the site’s cleanup since then.

“We have complied with all state and federal regulations and, throughout the process, prioritized the health of the community,” the statement read.

The suit names two plaintiffs – Faye Black and Jeannine Tolson – who live in neighborhoods impacted by the contaminated groundwater plume. But the class-action lawsuit argues it’s filed on behalf of everyone who owns residential property within the area impacted by the plume.

In a statement through lawyers, Tolson said she joined the lawsuit because she’s concerned her home has been undervalued.

“The railroad has taken advantage of us as a minority neighborhood and we are getting undermined,” Tolson said. “We feel like we have been denied a voice in this and this lawsuit gives us a voice as to what is happening.”

The lawsuit also alleges that, for decades, Union Pacific “concealed the presence” of contaminants like trichloroethylene and their movement onto neighbors’ properties.

“The defendant Union Pacific has known that it was a source of contamination for decades and decades,” Nidel said. “They’ve known that their contamination has a potential to cause injury.

“No one told the public. I think very little was known by the public until very recently.”

Case No. 6:23-cv-1218 / United States District Court for the District of Kansas The lawsuit was filed on behalf of all people who own residential property within the red lines.

Residents learned about the contamination last year after the state of Kansas sought public comment on a draft of a clean-up plan for the site. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment created a community relations plan in 2003 to inform residents about the spill, but failed to follow through on several key aspects of it, including notifying certain elected officials.

The lawsuit also accuses Union Pacific of:

  • Negligence in preventing groundwater contamination and notifying property owners of the spill
  • Causing a nuisance by contaminating private residential properties
  • Trespassing of the contaminants onto neighboring properties
  • Violating the state’s law around discharging of pollutants 
  • “Unjustly” enriching themselves by avoiding the costs of “lawful” disposal and remediation of the contamination. 

Nidel said the suit also hopes to address the cost residents’ may spend on modifying the property to avoid vapor intrusions, which is when chemicals in the groundwater vaporize and enter buildings as a gas. Previous indoor air quality tests over the plume took place in 2004, 2009, 2012 and 2013, and the state has said the tests showed TCE vapor didn’t exceed regulations. But the air quality standard became more stringent between 2009 and 2012.

The suit does not include any claims of health issues caused by the contamination, despite evidence that trichloroethylene can cause negative health effects. It’s difficult to file injuries as a class-action lawsuit because each health issue is unique, Nidle said. But he added the law firms are looking at injury cases moving forward.

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.

This article was republished here with the permission of: KMUW