Editor’s note: The Hufmans’ well was contaminated with two chemicals that can form as dry cleaning fluid breaks down. An earlier version of the article incorrectly stated the type and level of the contamination.
The state allowed hundreds of residents in two Wichita-area neighborhoods to drink contaminated water for years without telling them, despite warning signs of contamination close to water wells used for drinking, washing and bathing.
In 2011, while investigating the possible expansion of a Kwik Shop, the state discovered dry cleaning chemicals had contaminated groundwater at 412 W. Grand in Haysville.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment didn’t act for more than six years.
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It didn’t test private wells less than a mile away. Nor did it notify residents that their drinking wells could be contaminated with dry cleaning chemicals, known as perchloroethylene, so they could test the water themselves.
“We didn’t find out for 7 years,” said Joe Hufman, whose well was contaminated by a Haysville dry cleaner. “Haysville knew it. KDHE knew it. Kwik Shop knew it.”
Leo Henning, who is the director of environment for the KDHE, said the state acted as soon as it found out that the contamination had reached the drinking water wells.
“The Kansas Department of Health and Environment takes seriously its obligation to protect Kansans from environmental contamination. It’s important to note that as soon as the agency learned that water contamination found in the Haysville area was in the path of privately-used water wells, on July 17, 2017, affected residents were immediately notified, and alternate water supplies were offered,” he said in a written statement. “We want residents to feel confident in the safety of the water they drink but should those who utilize well water question their supply, we encourage them to have their wells tested. And if contamination is detected, please notify us right away, so that we can address the issue.”
A similar delay had happened at least once before, at a dry cleaning site near Central and Tyler in Wichita, where the state waited more than four years between discovering contamination nearby and notifying residents of more than 200 homes.
Some fear it could happen again at 22 contaminated sites where the state has not checked for people on well water — or that it could happen at a yet unknown site of contamination.
Kansans aren’t required to use city water if they already have a well, and some Wichita neighborhoods still rely on private well water.
The delays stem from a 1995 state law that places more emphasis on protecting the dry cleaning industry than protecting public health.
The Kansas Drycleaner Environmental Response Act was passed at the request of the dry cleaning industry to protect the small businesses from the potentially crippling cost of federal involvement. The Environmental Protection Agency, through its Superfund program, can pay to clean up water pollution and then bill any and all companies ever associated with the property to recover its money. Cleaning up pollution can easily cost millions of dollars; state law limits the liability of a dry cleaning shop to $5,000.
To raise money to investigate and clean up pollution, the state passed a tax on dry cleaning chemicals. While the KDHE supported the bill, one KDHE official warned the Legislature that a tax on cleaning solvent “would not be sufficient funding.”
The Legislature passed the law, including a line that directed the KDHE not to look for contamination from dry cleaners. The Legislature also directed the KDHE to “make every reasonable effort” to keep sites off the federal Superfund list.
It was a 2011 investigation in Haysville for Kwik Shop that discovered the dry cleaning chemical perchloroethylene (usually abbreviated PCE and also known as tetrachloroethylene) in groundwater higher than the level the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deems safe to drink.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment says it initially gave the Haysville site a low priority, assuming the contaminated groundwater was traveling southwest — away from private wells and in a different direction than Cowskin Creek.
It wasn’t until 2017 that KDHE realized groundwater was actually flowing to the southeast: directly along the creek and directly toward a cluster of private drinking wells. For the most part, the underground contamination follows Cowskin Creek, trailing down from a former dry cleaner on West Grand Avenue until past 83rd Street and into the cul-de-sac that Hufman calls home.
For the 25 years they lived in that house, Hufman, his wife and daughter drank the well water. They don’t know when the contamination reached them.
The Hufmans’ well was found to be contaminated with two chemicals formed when dry cleaning fluid breaks down.
When consumed, PCE can build up over time, potentially harming a person’s nervous system, liver, kidneys and reproductive system.
Exposure for long periods may cause changes in mood, memory, attention, reaction time and vision. Studies have suggested that the chemical might lead to a higher risk of bladder cancer, multiple myeloma or non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
The City of Haysville completed hooking up around 200 homes to city water in July.
Hufman says he doesn’t know why people on his cul-de-sac outside of Haysville weren’t notified about the contamination years ago, even if officials thought it was moving in a different direction. They now know their street was hit the worst of any — at least three of the street’s wells are contaminated over the EPA limit.
“You think they would have notified everybody, taken some precautions until something was done,” Hufman said. “Instead, they all kept quiet. They didn’t let anybody know about the contamination, so we all continued to drink the water.”
On the back burner
More contaminated sites keep being found, despite the state not being allowed to search for them: The list of sites accepted to the dry cleaning program goes up every year, from 14 in 1995 to 72 in 2002 to 163 today. Usually they’re identified when the KDHE is investigating other contamination, such as leaking gasoline tanks at service stations.
While the amount of money paid out of the fund each year varies widely, income has been on a mostly steady decline since 2000, when it brought in around $1.5 million. In 2016, the fund brought in just over $896,000.
Faced with a rising number of contaminated sites and a decreasing amount of income, the dry cleaning trust fund has struggled to keep up.
Currently, the state is dealing with contamination at 10 sites, while another five are proposed for work this year.
In October, about an additional 70 sites remained as part of a backlog, waiting for funding before the state could determine the extent of the contamination and whether there were drinking water wells in the area.
Taking lessons from Haysville, the KDHE has whittled that list from 70 sites to 22 in August by doing a more basic assessment, looking only at the length of the contamination plume and whether there are wells in the area. After the backlog is dealt with, the state plans to go back and complete each investigation.
“The money that we get is well spent,” said Leo Henning, director of environment for KDHE. “There’s never going to be enough money to do everything at once, so we have to prioritize. I think we’ve done a fairly good job of that. ... Right now our main challenge — and where we’re trying to get to — is making sure there are no Kansans drinking contaminated water.”
Of the 50 basic assessments, none have found people drinking contaminated water, said Joe Dom, deputy section chief for assessment and restoration at KDHE.
Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, is ranking minority member on the agriculture and natural resources committee.
She thinks that everyone with a well near a contaminated site ought to be notified within the next three to six months — and that the Legislature should start considering whether additional funding is needed to support emergency action, such as providing people with bottled water, and cleanup of these sites.
“You want the current (dry cleaning) industry to be covering its risks, but we all have to accept some of the risk for what happened in the past,” she said.
Peter Doorn, who heads the special remediation branch in North Carolina’s Division of Waste Management, also serves as chairman for the State Coalition for Remediation of Drycleaners.
He estimates that about 75 percent of current and former dry cleaning sites in the U.S. have some contamination. That’s because the historic contamination happened through normal, legal practices. Major laws governing how companies could dispose of chemicals weren’t written until the early 1970s.
About 400 dry cleaning facilities have registered with Kansas since the Dry Cleaning Trust Fund was created. The KDHE doesn’t keep a list of historic dry cleaning sites, since that could be seen as violating the statute that says they can’t look for new sites.
That part of the statute is something Rep. John Whitmer, R-Wichita, calls “outrageous” and “asinine.” His district includes the contamination in Haysville.
He thinks it would be an easy fix by the Legislature. That part of the statute would need to be removed, he said, but would also need funding to allow the KDHE to search for new sources of contamination.
In North Carolina, the legislature set aside a portion of funding to investigate new sites for possible contamination, Doorn said. Whether funding is available to find unknown sources of contamination varies by state.
There are about 13 states in the coalition, each with its own program. Some operate with less than $100,000 in their budget. Others, like North Carolina, operate with more than $8 million each year.
“Funding is driving these cleanups and whether or not programs can be successful,” Doorn said.
They weren’t looking for dry cleaning fluid: The group assessing 7920 W. Kellogg, about 2 miles from an old dry cleaning facility at Central and Tyler, was in search of radioactive materials. Instead, they found PCE at 8.1 parts per billion — over the 5 ppb standard for drinking water set by the EPA.
The December 2009 report said further action was “recommended” and that the site could be turned over to the “Superfund,” which deals with hazardous substances under federal authority.
The report also points out that there were 342 domestic wells within 1 mile of the site.
Two months later, Kelsee Wheeler at KDHE wrote an email saying KDHE would start a site assessment to find the source of PCE.
Next, there’s a gap in the records: It’s not until 2013 that environmental scientist Jon Vopata wrote that a site evaluation should be conducted.
The KDHE says it didn’t have the money to deal with the site until the Environmental Protection Agency provided funding in 2013.
The former Four Seasons Dry Cleaners was identified as the source of the contamination in 2014.
In April 2014, more than four years after the contamination was discovered, letters began going out to well owners telling them PCE was found in their wells and that they would be connected to the city of Wichita’s public water supply. In the end, more than 200 households were hooked up to city water.
Elizabeth Ablah, associate professor in the Department of Preventive Medicine and Public Health at the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita, says Haysville and Four Seasons make a trend — a trend that could be preventable.
More people are likely drinking contaminated water who have no idea, Ablah said.
“How do we protect this population when we see there are vulnerabilities that are not being caught?” Ablah asks.
About 70,000 private drinking water wells are recorded with the state. Ablah says it’s possible that up to nearly 400,000 Kansans drink well water. Yet the records of wells aren’t exhaustive, Ablah says, and no one really knows how many Kansans might be drinking from unregistered wells.
There have been other sites in the dry cleaning program where people were drinking contaminated water. In 1988, a public well in the city of Downs, in north-central Kansas, was taken out of service due to contamination. In 1989, Hutchinson hooked several people up to city water and took two public wells out of service. In 2006, a handful of private well owners near 13th and St. Paul in Wichita were hooked up to city water.
High cost of contamination
The price of dealing with the Four Seasons contamination was high: $2.5 million for emergency action alone by the end of 2016. Documents from the KDHE say the plume of contamination has not been moving.
But nothing has been done to clean up the contamination, although the KDHE says an engineer is currently preparing designs for a remediation system. Homes in the area are now hooked up to city water.
Questions persist in the Wichita neighborhood stretching from West Central to West Kellogg. What about pets that are still drinking the contaminated water outdoors? Could the water be used for washing machines to lower the cost of city water bills? Will the contamination ever clear out so they can have their wells back?
Some, like Randi and Michael Williams, worry about the health of people in their neighborhood. Even though their own well tested negative for PCE, the well of their rental home, located directly behind them, tested positive. When Mike’s mother was in hospice, the hospice worker told them she was familiar with their street.
“We thought we were safe and then the more we thought about it, we looked at who had died and who had been sick in our neighbors,” Randi said. “Everyone up and down the street has had something or other.”
A disease cluster investigation conducted in the neighborhood by KDHE said “there is no indication that PCE groundwater contamination is linked to increased cancer rates or birth defect rates in the neighborhood.” However, it can take decades for cancers to develop, and the study didn’t consider people who had moved away from the neighborhood.
Spending so much money on Four Seasons had repercussions for other sites as well. The 2016 legislative report about the fund says the KDHE had to shut down most work on cleaning up sites, due to money. A 2016 newsletter for the State Coalition for Remediation of Drycleaners said Kansas’ program was not able to initiate “activities at any new sites, or continue monitoring and remediation at existing sites, due to the Four Seasons emergency response, decreased revenue and reimbursement obligations.”
There have been years where KDHE is only able to monitor sites in order to save money.
A legislative fix
State Rep. Steven Crum, D-Haysville, has parents living half a block from the contamination site in Haysville.
He said he wonders if former dry cleaning sites should be checked for contamination, although that raises questions of funding.
The safety of Kansans should take priority, he said.
“We’ve got to figure out where these sites are, we’ve got to find them quicker and make sure people are drinking safe water,” he said.
State Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, who serves on the agriculture and natural resources committee, said he’s tried to get increased funding for the state water plan for years, partly because it would allow communities to hook all residents up to city water.
Perhaps there should be a program that assists people in having their water tested, he said, but there are still practical issues of funding and how to even identify well water users.
Sen. Dan Kerschen, R-Garden Plain, said he would like to see the KDHE receive additional money to clean up contaminated sites, not just emergency action such as providing bottled water and hooking residents up to city water.
“Just avoiding contamination is one thing, but the potential to clean it up and remove the toxic factor, well, then we’ve made some real strides there,” he said.
Help with funding
There has been some help with funding: In 2016, the Legislature created the Environmental Stewardship Fund to pay for remediation at orphan sites — those with no responsible party to pay for cleanup or join the fund — and emergency actions responding to an environmental threat. Money for the Environmental Stewardship Fund comes from a tax on gasoline and other petroleum products.
It cannot be used for remediation at sites that have a designated responsible party. Like the trust fund, it also cannot be used to look for contamination.
Dom, the deputy section chief for assessment and restoration at the KDHE, said one of the reasons the environmental stewardship fund was created was to mitigate the chance of another Four Seasons-style delay.
More than $5 million has already been used from the Environmental Stewardship Fund for work relating to sites in the dry cleaning trust fund. Of that amount, $4 million was paid to the city of Haysville.
Funding for the assessments on the backlogged sites has come from both the regular dry cleaner trust fund and the environmental stewardship fund, Dom said.
While the state is forbidden from looking for dry cleaning contamination, the city of Wichita is not.
After the Four Seasons pollution was found, the city began mapping the locations of former gas stations and dry cleaners.
When a home on a private well is near such a site, the city will recommend additional testing for toxic chemicals.
There are no regulations in Kansas that require testing for toxic chemicals in well water. A standard well test looks only at bacteria and nitrates, and that’s the kind of test people use when a property is transferred.
In July 2016, the city of Wichita’s approach paid off. A home was for sale in west Wichita and the groundwater was flowing toward the home from a historic dry cleaning site. The well water would be tested for bacteria and nitrates, but the city recommended it also be tested for toxic chemicals.
The well contained PCE. Soon the KDHE identified a contamination plume emanating from the former Miller Cleaners, and a handful of home owners were notified of contamination in their wells.
City officials said the KDHE’s response to the Miller Cleaners contamination was swift, rapidly hooking people up to city water.
Tim Holt, a broker with Golden Realtors, oversaw the sale of the west Wichita home.
If the city hadn’t recommended testing for toxic chemicals, the well would likely have been cleared of bacteria and the house sold.
“The water would have been cleared up of bacteria, but they would’ve been drinking contaminated water,” Holt said.
Even when testing is required, it’s almost always for bacteria and nitrates — not toxic chemicals. New Jersey was the first state to require additional testing for chemicals when a property with a nonpublic water supply is transferred, said Ablah, the professor. But in Kansas, few protections exist for private well users at a state level, she said.
She and others at the University of Kansas School of Medicine have gone through codes for every county in Kansas and numerous cities. They have drafted a set of public health action items and are now working to get feedback on which actions are needed and wanted. They include things like requiring the state to provide notice within seven days of discovering a contaminant.
“We really want to make sure that everybody in Kansas is able to drink clean, safe water, including people who rely on nonpublic water wells,” Ablah said. “I think there’s a lot that can be done.”