When you can’t trust the water in your well

by Gabriella Dun, originally posted on September 13, 2016


Helen and Bob Harrison have lived in their west Wichita home for 36 years and are now finding out that they’ve been drinking, cooking, bathing and washing their clothes in water contaminated with dry cleaning chemicals.

They don’t know how long their well water has been contaminated and are unsure about how risky the chemicals could be for their health.

They raised their two children in that home and have four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren that visit them and use the water.

“I’m very nervous, very much so health-wise,” Helen said. “All of the indications that you might get from drinking this are also the ones you get as you get older, and it’s hard to tell the difference. It is concerning.”

Their home is on Wetmore, just southeast of Maize and Maple in a neighborhood called The Dell.

The groundwater in that neighborhood has been contaminated by dry cleaning chemicals and gasoline that leaked into the ground from area businesses decades ago.

The contamination was discovered during a water well inspection when a home was sold in The Dell neighborhood. That home is just up the road from the Harrisons’ home.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment now thinks the contaminated groundwater runs from the southwest corner of Maple and Maize down both sides of Maize Road to the southeast below Hidden Valley and Maize Road.

The department is still investigating, so the area might be larger. The state’s not sure when the contamination occurred.

The city and state are working to connect people like the Harrisons, who use domestic water wells, to the city’s water system.

The Harrisons’ home is not yet connected to city water, and they are using bottled water provided by the state for drinking and for brushing their teeth.

Officials said they hope to connect homes in that area to city water by the end of October.

Helen said she and her husband are still bathing and washing clothes with tap water from the well, because the state said it was safe to use.

“It makes me nervous, but I guess we’ve been doing it a long time,” Helen said.

She said they have a purification system on the well, which she hopes filtered out the chemicals.

The cause

Nearly 100 community members attended a meeting Tuesday evening with state and city officials to discuss the contamination.

At the meeting, officials from the state health and environment department said testing identified only three homes with levels above the amount of contamination allowed in drinking water.

The Dell neighborhood is 1 mile west of an area where nearly 200 homes have been grappling with high levels of groundwater contamination in domestic wells.

Those homes have since been connected to the city of Wichita’s water system. But questions remain about long-term health effects from prolonged exposure.

The two areas of contamination are not connected, according to the state.

The contamination along Maize Road and in The Dell neighborhood originated from two businesses: dry cleaning fluid from Miller’s Cleaners, near West Maple and South Maize, and gasoline from a former Coastal Mart near West Central and North Maize.

The state says it identified the problem in mid-August and has provided bottled water to residents until homes can be connected to city water. The Department of Health and Environment will cover the cost of connecting homes to city water from environmental-related funds, such as the dry cleaner’s trust fund.

Miller’s Cleaners is still open at that site but operates only as a drop-off location. It discontinued its on-site dry cleaning in 2008.

Bob Jurgens, section chief of assessment and restoration for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said the state is currently overseeing about 160 sites with groundwater contamination in Kansas.

“This is a major problem all across the United States,” Jurgens said. “This is nothing new or special to Kansas, by any means.”

He said the dry cleaning chemical is particularly difficult to remove from groundwater.

“It’s very hearty,” he said. “It does not degrade easily, that’s the problem.

“It’s just really persistent, and it stays.”

Residents who attended Tuesday’s meeting asked questions about potential health risks, exposure levels, the state’s confidence in current and future testing of the sites and the risk of groundwater spreading the contamination.

Farah Ahmed, public health officer for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said the health risks are still unclear and vary for each individual depending on various characteristics.

She said the contaminant from gasoline is not known as being cancer-causing and that it’s not designated as a carcinogen.

But the dry cleaning contaminant – perchloroethylene – has been identified as being likely carcinogenic for humans. It can also damage the liver and kidneys.

Moving forward

Don Henry, assistant director of Public Works and Utilities for the city of Wichita, said the City Council will need to vote to approve funding for water main extensions in The Dell neighborhood area but that the city is moving forward with planning the water main projects as a way to speed up the process.

He emphasized that the issue affects only people in the area who use private wells for drinking water.

“This has nothing to do with the city water supply,” he said. “That remains completely safe.”

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