By Sam Jack
Last Wednesday, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) described information in a Wichita Eagle story on contaminated groundwater as “blatantly false.”
After the Haysville Sun-Times called to follow up, the KDHE expanded on its brief initial response to the Eagle story. But the state agency still provided no basis for a charge of blatant falsehood.
Neither the Wichita Eagle nor the Kansas City Star, which printed an editorial based on the Eagle’s reporting, has issued a retraction; the Eagle made only a minor correction.
The Eagle published its story on Sunday, Aug. 26, highlighting the KDHE’s handling of groundwater contamination linked to dry cleaning chemicals.
Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the Sept. 6 print edition of the Haysville Sun-Times. To see stories like this sooner, and to get all your community news, subscribe to the Sun-Times. Call 316-540-0500 to get the next edition delivered to your home.
Eagle reporter Katherine Burgess spent nearly a year investigating dry cleaning chemical pollution, and the state’s approach to handling that pollution. She started soon after the KDHE’s July 17, 2017, announcement that groundwater in the Haysville area was polluted.
After that announcement, around 200 homes were added to the city of Haysville’s water system, with the state of Kansas paying the entire $4 million cost.
KDHE Bureau of Environmental Remediation director Bob Jurgens said that the KDHE objected to the lead paragraph of Burgess’s story: “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 response, Jurgens wrote that the KDHE was not aware of any contaminated water wells from 2011 until 2017.
That has not been disputed, but the agency did get “warning signs of contamination,” in the form of a 2011 report, paid for by Kwik Shop, that showed groundwater contamination at the former site of American Dry Cleaners.
“When we did locate the wells during the 2017 assessment, the wells were sampled and analyzed. Upon review of the lab report, the well owners were told to cease drinking the water and bottled water was provided within 24 hours. The nearest private drinking water well was approximately 0.5 miles southeast of the former dry-cleaning facility,” Jurgens wrote.
Jurgens made similar statements in a Facebook video that accompanied the “blatantly false” claim. Burgess, who is now a reporter for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, pointed out that the facts Jurgens highlighted do not contradict her reporting.
“The video has plenty of information that was already known to the public and included in the article,” she said. “I think it, in fact, strengthens the article. It talks about 2011, when the contamination was first discovered, and then 2017, when they started hooking people up to city water.
“I’m not sure what it is they’re calling ‘blatantly false,’” Burgess continued. “They haven’t said the premise of the article was false, and I very clearly told them what I planned to report and why I intended to report that way.”
KDHE also said it objects to a paragraph in an Aug. 28 Kansas City Star editorial: “State officials sat on that information (the 2011 report). They ordered no further testing and never let on that residents should test their private wells.”
Explaining his agency’s objection, Jurgens said that KDHE did not intentionally delay testing – but neither the Eagle report nor the Star editorial claimed that it did so.
Jurgens noted that funding for KDHE testing was not available until 2017, because funding for dry cleaning contamination remediation “is based on a prioritization system.”
Issue likely to come up in Legislature
The Eagle’s report draws attention to a 1995 state law, the Kansas Drycleaner Environmental Response Act, that was passed with the aim of protecting dry cleaning businesses from costs associated with cleanups.
The law instructs the KDHE not to look for contamination from dry cleaners and to “make every reasonable effort” to keep sites off the federal Superfund list.
State Rep. Steven Crum, a Democrat who represents Haysville north of Grand Avenue, said he has already asked the Kansas Office of Revisor of Statutes to start working on language for a bill that would eliminate those restrictions on the KDHE.
“Not only that. I want to see it put in statute that they’re going to start going out and finding (contamination from dry cleaners),” he said. “I think the trick’s going to be finding somewhere to say, ‘We can get the money from here to do it.’ The state’s really good at coming up with plans, but really lousy at funding them.”
Also a member of the Haysville City Council, Crum said he has heard from residents who want to know whether the city was informed about possible groundwater contamination in 2011, when the KDHE first learned about it.
He does not know for sure, since he was not on the city council at the time, but he believes the city was not informed. Mayor Bruce Armstrong said at a city council meeting that the city didn’t know.
Crum wanted to stress that the city’s water is safe to drink and that its safety has never been compromised.
“People are saying, ‘Maybe it seeped into the pipes,’ but that’s not how it works,” he said. The pollution likewise did not affect surface water in the Cowskin Creek or elsewhere.
Crum said anyone with health concerns linked to past or present groundwater contamination should contact Dr. Farah Ahmed, the State Epidemiologist. Ahmed’s phone number is 877-427-7317; or email firstname.lastname@example.org.