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West Wichita groundwater contamination meeting brings some answers

Published on -4/11/2014, 10:35 AM

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By Amy Renee Leiker

The Wichita Eagle

WICHITA -- A meeting held Thursday by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to address concerns over groundwater contamination caused by dry-cleaning solvents decades ago gave residents a few answers about the chemical's potential health risks and how and why the pollution happened but also left them reeling from a number of unknowns.

A few hundred people -- mostly residents who live in what KDHE calls its "area of concern" -- attended Thursday's meeting at Wilbur Middle School. Aided by a slide show presentation, Bob Jurgens, chief of the KDHE Dry Cleaning Remediation Program, explained that while there has been confirmation of tetrachloroethylene contamination in their area, until well testing is complete it's unclear exactly how many people may have to stop using their water.

Residents voiced concerns ranging from potential health risks of exposure to the chemical to whether the contamination is affecting wells drilled 100 or more feet deep.

One person asked whether KDHE planned to inform former residents of the neighborhoods of the pollution.

"I don't know," Jurgens replied.

"Should those people be concerned about health concerns?" another person posed in a follow-up question.

"I would say there is a potential risk."

Later a man asked: "Is there an impact on the value of the property?"

Jurgens responded that he was not involved in the real estate market "but yeah. Most likely. I don't know how much."

In terms of cleanup and testing efforts Jurgens said: "There's a lot more of this to come." He noted that the project was still in its early stages and that the area of concern may grow as more testing is completed.

"It's going to be very hard to remove everything (all of the solvent). We've been trying for years. ... But we can get rid of most of it and get the groundwater back to acceptable risk -- not for drinking, but at least for lawn and garden" and other outdoor uses.

KDHE's area of concern stretches south and slightly southeast of 8947 W. Central, the former home of Four Seasons Dry Cleaners. Jurgens said Thursday there are about 186 private wells in the known affected area and a buffer zone.

Investigators have already found dozens that contain concentrations of tetrachloroethylene above the Environmental Protection Agency's maximum contaminant level of 5 micrograms per liter for drinking water. Testing began just weeks ago.

Tetrachloroethylene is described by the EPA as a colorless organic liquid with a mild, chloroform-like odor that is likely carcinogenic to humans. Jurgens told the crowd the chemical was likely used at the address as early as the 1950s or 1960s when a business with coin-operated dry cleaning machines opened there.

Jurgens said KDHE first discovered the solvent in a monitoring well at 7920 W. Kellogg in late 2009. Asked by a crowd member why residents weren't immediately notified of the pollution, Jurgens said the site was placed on a list of areas that needed further investigation and that funding used for testing private wells wasn't made available through the KDHE's Dry Cleaning Remediation Program until earlier this year.

Jurgens also said that currently KDHE does not know whether the contamination plume extends south of the Kellogg monitoring well because private wells in that area have not been tested. He said that until cleanup is complete -- a goal that hinges on available funding to clean up contaminated dry cleaner sites -- the solvent may continue drifting south and southeast with the flow of groundwater.

"We will be looking at where this is going, but right now we are looking at the private wells that are impacted," Jurgens said.

A resident asked: "How long is the testing an accurate number?"

"It's unlikely the the contaminant level will change very quickly," was the reply.

"So you are thinking six months, a year at best?" the resident said. When Jurgens hesitated, the man asked for an estimate.

"I do not think it would change much in a year's time," Jurgens said.

Jurgens said eventually households affected by the pollution will be offered a chance to hook up to the city's water supply. But when that will happen remains unknown. In the meantime, KDHE has ordered bottled water delivered to some residents. Others have had carbon filtration systems installed. Some households also are being advised not to shower, cook or wash hands with their well water.

"If there are any concerns, we encourage you to probably go to the grocery store and get bottle water" until the hookups to city water are available, he said. "Anything you can do to help minimize the risk."

Anyone with questions about the pollution, or who lives in the contamination plume but hasn't had their well tested, can contact Jurgens at 785-296-1914 or bjurgens@kdheks.com or Darryl Morgan, geologist in charge of the project, at 785-296-8025 or dmorgan@kdheks.gov.

Potential health risks from long-term exposure mentioned at Thursday's meeting include disorders of the nervous system; of the kidney, liver and metabolic systems; non-Hodgkin's lymphoma; bladder cancer; and reproductive hazards.

Those with health concerns can contact KDHE's public health officer Farah Ahmed at 785-296-6426 or fahmed@kdheks.gov. They are also encouraged to call their doctors.

"Stay on top of annual physicals and cancer screenings," Ahmed told Thursday's crowd. "And let your physician know that exposure is a potential."

Reach Amy Renee Leiker at 316-268-6644 or aleiker@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @amyreneeleiker.

(c)2014 The Wichita Eagle

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