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Butler County homeowners sue pipeline company over water contamination

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, May 19, 2013, at 5:27 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, May 26, 2013, at 6:59 a.m.

James and Keelie McCray said their well water smelled so strongly of gasoline that they were advised not to light a match near it. They felt compelled to move out of their home near Andover for a year. They returned but have been drinking and cooking with bottled water since.

Their neighbors said the contamination from the McCrays’ backyard eventually spread to some of their yards. Some of them also use bottled water and have had filtration systems installed on their wells.

Now the McCrays and 17 other families have turned to the courts. A lawsuit filed in Sedgwick County District Court on behalf of homeowners in the Easter Addition northeast of Andover seeks $2.3 million in damages from San Antonio-based NuStar Pipeline Operating Partnership L.P.

The lawsuit says NuStar refuses to clean up the contamination from a 1990 pipeline rupture in the backyard of the McCrays’ house and that that shows “a reckless disregard” for residents in the addition and has ruined their property values. It also says the pipeline’s former owner concealed the rupture and the ensuing contamination from regulators.

NuStar, which has owned the pipeline since 2005, denies the allegations and maintains that residents have failed to show NuStar caused the alleged conditions on their properties

The case is scheduled for a jury trial in the summer of 2014.

Residents said the neighborhood consists of long-time home owners, mostly elderly and retired people who can’t afford to move and who doubt they’d be able to find buyers for their homes because of the history of contaminated groundwater.

James and Keelie McCray both have jobs, but moving would require them to file for bankruptcy because nobody would buy their house, said Keelie McCray, who has five children in the house

“I don’t want something for nothing,” she said. “As long as I knew my family was safe and that I didn’t have to worry about selling this house, I’d be pretty content. But I just want them to own this. They’re just Band-Aid fixing it.”

In an e-mail to The Eagle, Gary Koegeboehn, vice president and general manager of the NuStar Central East Region, said NuStar has been working “cooperatively and proactively” with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to investigate and address the concerns of the property owners in the addition, whose health and safety “is a top priority.”

Problem dates to 1990

The rupture was discovered in April 1990, long before the McCrays lived in the house and long before NuStar owned the pipeline, which slashes diagonally through the neighborhood at a depth of about 36 inches

The former homeowner found what looked like gasoline dumped in his yard and informed the pipeline’s then-owner, Kaneb Pipe Line Operating Partnership. Kaneb said it removed the contaminated soil and repaired the pipeline. More than two years later, the homeowner began to smell gas in the drinking water, according to the lawsuit.

According to KDHE, a resident contacted its South Central District Office in Wichita about the rupture and contamination on Dec. 22, 1992.

Sampling by the department found benzene, classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as a carcinogen, in the water and found that the pollution had spread to a nearby residence. Kaneb supplied bottled water to both homeowners and in 1993 installed a carbon filter at the home where the rupture occurred. Sampling of the wells in 1995 and 2001 found no contamination, according to the KDHE.

The lawsuit says monitoring showed contamination in the neighborhood in 2002, 2003, 2008, 2009 and 2010.

When the McCrays bought their home in 2009, they knew a filtration system had been installed for their well water, and they were told the water was fine.

“I wasn’t a bit worried,” said Keelie McCray.

About six months later, she said, they were contacted by a consultant for NuStar about doing more testing and drilling monitoring wells on their property.

“That raised a red flag,” she said. “As they’re digging, we could smell the gas fumes in the soil. And the guys digging the wells weren’t quiet about it, either.”

Contamination spread to other yards when the McCrays drilled a new well in the summer of 2011, the lawsuit says. The McCrays’ old well had gone dry because of the drought.

Because the old well was shallow, the McCrays asked the consultant if they could drill down to a deeper aquifer used by others in the neighborhood. The consultant approved and found a site on their property for the new well. But as the digging took place, the McCrays and the workers smelled petroleum in the soil, and the consultant ordered immediate testing, the McCrays said.

Other complaints

According to the lawsuit, NuStar’s conduct upon discovery that contamination was now in the lower aquifer “has bordered on contempt for the McCrays.”

The McCrays said they had to take showers in a relative’s home. They also had to build a new well house for the carbon filtration system on the north side of their home. “NuStar refused to pay for the structure and told the McCrays that they were on their own,” the lawsuit says.

Keelie McCray said the new well tested positive for benzene.

In November 2011, the McCrays left the house out of concern for their children’s safety. They lived for a year in a rented house in Wichita before returning.

Donn and Donna Dick, two retirees who have lived in a house across the street from the McCrays’ house for 36 years, said they began noticing a chemical taste in their water the next month. They tried chlorinating their well twice at the advice of local environmental specialists, but it didn’t help. They have been using bottled water for drinking and for brushing teeth and cooking since then.

They worry about the health effects of the contaminated water. Donn Dick retired from Cheney Door two years ago at age 63 because of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He wonders whether breathing petroleum fumes in the shower has aggravated his condition.

Moving is not an option, said Donna Dick.

“We’re not going to get enough if we sold it. We can’t afford to move,” she said. “We’re in kind of a Catch-22.”

KDHE and NuStar began a well-sampling program in the neighborhood in January 2012 at the request of residents and found benzene and other petroleum hydrocarbon-related contaminants that were above allowable levels for drinking water at six homes.

NuStar offered bottled water service through Culligan to 12 homes and had Culligan install carbon filtration systems on nine wells at NuStar’s expense.

Koegeboehn said in his e-mail to The Eagle that the testing in January 2012 showed that the contamination “was not consistent with the products our pipeline carries” and not connected to the 1990 rupture.

“In addition,” he said in the e-mail, “the contamination quickly disappeared. And recent sampling of these wells in 2013 has not detected contamination. In fact, there has been no detection of the contamination identified in early 2012 since May 2012.”

McCray said testing on her property in February 2012 showed the presence of benzene at levels higher than those considered safe by KDHE. Tests in March showed traces of chloroform, she said, and a subsequent test showed that the filtration system wasn’t doing much to lower the chloroform levels.

Koegeboehn said the contamination has dissipated and does not pose a health threat to the residents.

NuStar notified residents in December that they would have to pay for the bottled water if they wanted to continue drinking it and that they would lose their filtration systems at the end of January.

But, Koegeboehn said, NuStar is still providing the bottled water service “in the near term as part of our ongoing effort to be a good corporate citizen and a good neighbor in the Andover community.”

Although recent tests have been clean, the McCrays and the Dicks don’t expect their water to stay clean.

“We thought it was clean for several years, then all of a sudden all hell broke loose and it was back,” Keelie McCray said. “It’s a big risk to even be out here.

“If the water started testing terribly again, I would leave again and I would file for bankruptcy,” she said. “I don’t want to stick somebody else with it.”

Said Donna Dick: “Everybody’s just waiting for it to come back. It may never start up again. But do you take that chance and start drinking the water again? We don’t.”

Reach Fred Mann at 316-268-6310 or fmann@wichitaeagle.com.

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