HUTCHINSON — Soda ash from a long-abandoned plant is causing groundwater pollution around Hutchinson, the state health department said.
Officials think remnants of the plant, which opened in 1906 as the Hutchinson Chemical and Alkali Co., are polluting groundwater under Hutchinson, said Laura Price, an environmental scientist with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment's Bureau of Environmental Remediation.
Soda ash is the trade name for sodium carbonate, a chemical with dozens of uses, including as an essential raw material for making several types of glass. The paper pulp and chlorine industries also use it.
No water wells in the area are drawing from the contaminated water, Price said, but the concern is that the waste piles are continuing to contaminate the groundwater and the contamination is spreading.
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A plume of chloride-contaminated water is reaching at least two miles southeast, although the exact boundary of the plume is unclear, Price said. The plume has spread since monitoring wells were installed in 2007 and has merged with another plume from a brine well field formerly operated by IMC Salt.
Efforts to address pollution at the site have been ongoing since at least 1997. A plan to clean up the chlorides is now in a voluntary process involving Honeywell International, which inherited responsibility for the cleanup through corporate mergers.
"KDHE oversees the investigation, but Honeywell is conducting the investigation," Price said.
The state has been installing monitoring wells to find the edge of the plume and trying to get access to the property to collect samples of the waste, Price said.
The plant opened in 1906 and reached its peak of production in World War I, when it employed up to 800 people. Waste alkaline was heaped on the ground bordering the factory, creating huge piles over several acres. It closed three years after the war ended and was torn down in the late 1940s.
Currently, the land has four or five private owners. Most of the land, filled with 15- to 20-foot high mounds of soil, remains vacant.