KSN Investigates

KSN Investigates: Groundwater contamination

HAYSVILLE, Kan. (KSNW) - More than a year after groundwater contamination in Haysville forced hundreds of homes to hook up to city water, many residents still wonder if they're safe.

"Yeah, this is my life now," said Kristie Murphy, as she swallowed a handful of prescription pills. "I take these every day."

Murphy grew up in Haysville, and after years of kidney and nerve damage, she can't put off going to the doctor any longer.

"I feel very scared," said Murphy, shaking her head. "I've been avoiding going to the doctor for testing."

But she has to know, if she too has cancer.

Kristie's brother and sister had cancer, and her parents both died from it, along with her best friend who grew up right across the street - the same neighborhood, but each person with a different kind of cancer and no genetic markers. 

"I feel like something is not right here because all of my family members, except me, have been diagnosed with some form of cancer, which I don't think is common," said Murphy.

Susan Armstrong has had three unrelated cancers in eight years. She even wrote a book about it, called "Something in the Water."

"I was surprised to get a second diagnosis and then a third," said Armstrong.  "And my doctors asked me, 'Do you work around chemicals? Have you been in farming?'"

She later found out that chemical exposure likely came from the former "American Dry Cleaners" at 412 W. Grand in Haysville. For about 20 years, until 1995, it flushed chemicals down the sewer lines, leaking them into Haysville's groundwater.

"There's multiple sources where we find the contamination, but it was the industry standard, and there was no regulation against those practices," said Bob Jurgens, spokesperson for KDHE. 

KDHE LEARNS OF CONTAMINATION

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment first knew of the contamination in late 2011, but didn't investigate how far it had spread. Jurgens blames limited funding and a backlog of other dry cleaners that looked even worse.

"The amount of contamination compared to some of the other sites across the state was very low level overall," said Jurgens.

Plus, KDHE officials didn't think drinking water was affected. Initial tests showed the groundwater flowing in the opposite direction of the nearby Cowskin Creek, away from Haysville homes on well water. --Story continues below--

WEB EXTRA | HOW THE WATER BECAME CONTAMINATED

Because of that, KDHE didn't consider the contamination site a high priority; in fact, they put their findings on their website, but never notified the City of Haysville.

As a result, hundreds of people kept using the tainted well water, even the wife of Haysville's mayor.

RELATED LINK | KDHE document on Haysville contamination

"I don't understand who would think that's okay to know about it and not tell anyone," said Armstrong.

It wasn't until 2017, six years later, that KDHE used new funding to test about 200 wells in Haysville and determined the plume of contamination actually traveled right toward them.

"Actually, there were only four properties where the contamination was above the EPA-allowed levels," said Jurgens. --Story continues below--

MAP | HAYSVILLE CONTAMINATION AREA OF CONCERN

"It ranges. It ranges from just above that standard to well above it," said Jack Brown, an expert in environmental health at KU School of Medicine-Wichita.

Brown and Dr. Elizabeth Ablah have seen the data and researched another dry cleaning contamination site in west Wichita. 

CANCER LINKED TO WATER CONTAMINATION?

They say the chemicals involved, called PCE, TCE, DCE and vinyl chloride, are linked to several cancers, like bladder, kidney, breast, lung, multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. 

They also increase the risk for reproductive problems and neurological disorders, including Parkinson's.

Dr. Ablah says it's unclear how much chemical exposure it takes to cause health problems.

"How that manifests in one person could be very different, dramatically different in another person," said Dr. Ablah.

Turns out, the highest concentration of chemicals was on the Armstrong property, where Susan battled cancer while still drinking the water she now believes caused it.

"It's really a betrayal that's hard to understand," said Armstrong.

This time, KDHE quickly notified Susan and others in the affected area and connected their homes to city water; yet their anger and questions remain. 

"I don't know if we'll ever know if six years could have made a difference, but I think there's an obligation there. If you know something, you should share it."

"Maybe my mother's illness would have been caught, and had her illness been caught, maybe she'd still be here," said Murphy.

Diagnosed with myeloma during that six-year window, Kristie's mom died three months later.

Now, Kristie and Susan are vigilant about their health.  

Armstrong just got the all-clear from her doctor that she is cancer-free.

"I feel great," she said.

Kristie also got good news. Her tests show no sign of cancer.

She's determined to get regular checks for years to come, wondering if she and her family will ever feel safe again.

WATER CLEANUP TO BEGIN

KDHE plans to start cleaning up the contaminated water through a process called "air-stripping" by spring of next year. A final design of the remediation is expected soon.

State officials are also sampling 15 homes in the affected area to see if the chemicals have seeped into the soil and air.

Jurgens says the risk of vapor intrusion is low, but KDHE wants to make sure none of the samples show evidence of it.

If they do, more testing and investigation will be done to determine the extent of contamination and what needs to done in the future.

KSN will continue to follow the process and keep you updated.

WEB EXTRA | KDHE IMPROVES REPORTS OF CONTAMINATION

"One thing we have done is go back and evaluate our policies, and we've already made some changes. Number one, we've been able to secure additional funding to begin assessing sites sooner where there is folks that may be using groundwater. The other thing we've done is tweaked our ranking system to identify the sites, that would be places where groundwater is used, and those sites we've gone through and looked at a 2-mile radius of the facility to see if there are any private water wells, and if we don't know which way the groundwater direction is going, to be able to go out and sample those." 

WEB EXTRA | KDHE CLEARS BACKLOG OF KANSAS DRY CLEANER SITES 

"Right now, we are working on all but 22 of those, and those 22 are ones in the Kansas City area where groundwater is not used for drinking water purposes.They truly are your lower risk sites. So we have investigations completed or started on the remaining 50-some sites that were on the previous backlog list." 


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