Politics & Government

City asks county to extend tax district for groundwater pollution cleanup

Seeking to take the next step in a decades-long process of cleaning up pollution in central Wichita, city officials went before Sedgwick County commissioners Tuesday seeking their permission to extend a special tax district to pay for the long-term cleanup.

On Wednesday, commissioners will consider whether to add 10 years to the life of the North Industrial Corridor tax increment finance district, a move that would generate an estimated $11.65 million toward cleaning up polluted groundwater. At present, the district has a balance of about $9.65 million.

The pollution came from years of dumping industrial solvents in the north-central area and resides in a groundwater plume that is slowly spreading south.

The tax district is bounded by Second Street on the south, 37th Street on the north, I-135 on the east and Waco and Market streets on the west.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment and the federal Environmental Protection Agency are mandating that the pollution be intercepted and eventually neutralized to keep it from spreading.

The current plan is to use wells to pump the tainted water out of the ground and pipe it to a treatment center in south Wichita. That could change if a better technical solution comes up during the course of the project, officials said.

Overall, the cleanup is expected to take as long as 70 years and cost $43 million to $84 million, according to Darren Brown, the city’s project manager.

In addition to the $21.3 million from the tax district, the rest of the cleanup cost will be paid by businesses that were responsible for a share of the pollution, Brown said.

About 20 businesses have acknowledged some responsibility and joined the public-private partnership for the cleanup. About another two dozen have not joined, and it will take negotiations and possibly litigation to get them to pay their share, Brown said.

The city and county established the tax district in 1995 to support a cleanup plan and get the north-central part of the city out of Superfund status.

That designation, identifying the central city among the nation’s most polluted sites, had caused property values to plummet and banks to stop lending for businesses in the area, said City Manager Robert Layton.

Layton and Brown said the corridor cleanup plan and the tax district had allowed the city to issue releases for environmental conditions to more than 3,100 businesses that didn’t cause the pollution.

That in turn cleared the way for the businesses to take out bank loans to operate in the industrial corridor, giving both the businesses and the lenders confidence that the government wouldn’t assess them later for cleanup costs.

Having that program in place keeps the property values in the industrial corridor higher than they would be otherwise, especially if the area was a Superfund site, Layton said.

The higher property values lead to higher tax revenue, which is gathered into the tax increment district and used to help fund the cleanup.

This is the second tax district the city has set up to address polluted groundwater. A similar district was established to keep downtown Wichita off the Superfund list.

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or dlefler@wichitaeagle.com.