WICHITA, Kansas – The place we call our “home” is supposed to be a safe haven, free from harm and danger. However, when it comes to toxic chemicals, we may not be as safe as we think.
The Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, has defined areas where hazardous waste has been located as “Superfund Toxic Sites,” that have the potential to affect local ecosystems and/or people. Sites are listed on the National Priorities List (NPL), indicating the specific chemical waste(s) at each site and how the federal government is addressing the issue.
Each site is part of the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation Liability Act, or CERCLA. According to the EPA’s website, “This law created a tax on the chemical and petroleum industries and provided broad Federal authority to respond directly to releases or threatened releases of hazardous substances that may endanger public health or the environment.”
These superfund sites have been identified across the U.S., in Kansas, and even in Wichita. In fact, in recent years, three sites have been on the NPL:
- 57th and North Broadway Streets Site
- 29th and Mead Groundwater Contamination / 13th and Washington Streets Site
- John’s Sludge Pond Site
Each of the three superfund sites above are under the EPA’s Region 7 Cleanup efforts.
These sites are similar to issues seen in 2014 concerning West Wichita water contamination.
Arguably the most interesting toxic site currently on the EPA’s radar is the 57th and North Broadway site. This is because the EPA has been monitoring hazardous chemical levels at the site for nearly 20 years and officials have yet to find the exact source of the contamination. Additionally, although numerous remedial efforts have been successful in limiting the levels, no solution has been devised to eliminate the contamination completely.
It is important to mention that the intersection itself is not contaminated with toxic waste. Instead, this is simply the name the EPA has given the toxic site because it is likely the closest intersection to easily characterize the contaminated area.
In 1992, after almost a decade of environmental investigations into the site and concerns over the taste and odor of water, the area was found to have had such extreme levels of Tetrachloroethylene, or PCE, it was labeled a “Superfund Toxic Site,” and later, put on the NPL list.
Tetrachloroethylene, also known as PCE, is a chemical often used in the dry cleaning industry. However, it is also used in paint strippers and household products, like spot removers. PCE can also be used as a degreaser.
EXTRA | Chemical Explainer: PCE
- U.S. Dept. Health and Human Services: Tetrachloroethane ToxFAQ
- Natural Resources Defence Council: Perchloroethylene (Tetrachloroethylene, PERC, PCE)
“It may be carcinogenic to humans… and that’s why we try to take care of it,” said Amer Safadi, the site’s remedial project manager, Environmental Protection Agency Region 7.
In terms of this site specifically however, no human reports of illness or death have been reported in the immediate area.
Safadi told KSN, “There’s no human exposure at all.”
KSN asked the EPA if the neighborhood should be concerned about this health risk.
“Not really,” said Safadi. “Because, like I said, if there’s any concern that we feel there is any exposure to humans, that would be, immediately, action would be taken care of. [We would] take care of it very quickly. So far, we have not seen anything that’s caused any alarm.”
Despite EPA’s efforts and initial reports of concerns to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, or KDHE, dating back to the 1980s, the contamination remains an issue in 2015.
The superfund site is comprised of a plume of contamination about 800 feet wide and currently, 1.5 miles long. It reportedly stretches South-Southwest from 57th and North Broadway down to 46th Street. In recent years, the area has stretched to impact Riverview residents up to 61st Street.
“The contamination still lingers in certain areas,” said Safadi. “Once it gets into the water, like a small, tiny, little cup of it gets into the groundwater, it spreads.”
One tablespoon of PCE can contaminate 400,000 gallons of water, or two Olympic-sized swimming pools.
THE GARCIA FAMILY
While the area of 57th and North Broadway is seemly largely industrial, there is a small neighborhood immediately North of the intersection, comprised of approximately 30 houses.
The fact that the contamination is still an issue is especially concerning for families living in this neighborhood.
Alisha Garcia lives with her young family in one of the houses in the area. Her family moved into their house in September 2013 and fixed it up. For Alisha, the most concerning aspect of learning about the superfund site is the fact that she was unaware of the issue.
“There was nobody that told us about the groundwater,” said Garcia. “I had no idea.”
As a mother of two, Alisha, understandably has some questions, “Is it leaking out? Are we breathing it in? Are we drinking it?” she asked.
Also concerning, Garcia says, is the fact that the contamination still exists, and that the source of the problem has not been identified.
“Why are they not being able to find it?” asked Garcia.
THE EPA’S RESPONSE
KSN traveled to Lenexa to speak with the site’s remedial project manager in person and learn the latest information about how the federal organization is working to resolve the contamination concern.
The EPA tells KSN that they monitor contamination levels at over 30 wells around the site’s plume every six months, in March and October. These Soil Vapor Extraction systems are crucial in determining contamination levels. In fact, the EPA monitors many contaminates, not only PCE.
“Sometimes it’s very difficult to find the source,” said Safadi.
The EPA came up with three possible contributors to the contamination, including the location of a “hotspot.” However, the EPA has never been able to conclusively connect these businesses to the contamination.
- Allen’s Enterprises, which is referred to in EPA governmental reports as Allen’s Auto Salvage. The owner of this land tells KSN News he has cooperated with the EPA from the beginning and that he does not know what caused the contamination problem.
- Wilko Paint, which has since moved out of the location. KSN reached out to company representatives, but were told they have “no comment” concerning this matter.
Midland Oil Refinery, which we were told by the EPA that the refinery was no longer in business.
“Midland [went] out of business a long time ago, but, there’s still a lot of equipment, still a lot of old stuff in there,” said Safadi.
However, when KSN reached out to Midland representatives to see if they had any comment concerning this story, we were surprised to learn their phone number was, in fact, in service and told us they were technically still in operation.
“We pick up used oil,” said a Midland company representative. That representative did not wish to speak with us concerning the EPA site. In turn, KSN News contacted the EPA to inform representatives that Midland told us they were still in operation near the 57th and North Broadway site.
In an email response, Safadi wrote back, “…They might still be doing some work with used oil and metal scraps.”
Even after nearly 20 years of investigations and monitoring, there is still no identifiable source to the contamination at the site. This has residents in the area, like Alisha Garcia, saying they’re left with more questions than answers.
“I don’t want to live off of fear, but I have a little one that I need to think of,” said Garcia.
For a comprehensive progress report of the site, the EPA publishes a five-year review. For the latest report, published June 2014, click here.
THE NEXT STEP
Due to the EPA’s inability to eradicate all contamination associated with this site, the federal organization is currently working on a new, revolutionary solution that would, hopefully, remove the current contamination and any possible future spread.
The EPA is in a “Feasibility Study Phase.” The organization has proposed a plan to the state of Kansas, specifically KDHE, to begin the process of approving, and then, putting that plan into action. We are told that new remedy would include the removal of some soil.
“Hopefully this will take care of this problem,” explained Safadi.
Before the KDHE can make that final approval, however, KSN News was told that a public comment period will ensue.
“They have a month to comment,” said Safadi. “We also have a public meeting that we invite the people to, where we will explain to them what we’re trying to do and what are the remedial alternatives that we’re thinking would be feasible for the site, and if they have any exceptions [or] contributions, they can present that to us and we’ll take it very seriously.”
KSN News will continue to follow this story and bring you more information about that public comment period as soon as that information is decided and becomes available.
If you are concerned for your health and live in the area, or another Superfund Toxic Site, the EPA urges you to contact them and report your concerns.
EXTRA | RELATED LINKS FOR MORE INFORMATION
- EPA Latest 5-Year Report on 57th & North Broadway Site (Full report, 238 pgs)
- Chemical Explainer: PCE
- EPA’s National Priorities List (NPL)
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