Three fishing poles cast at the k 96 fishing lake.
Fishing poles line the dock at K-96 Fishing Lake. The lake is directly north of a Wichita toxic site contaminated by a large chemical spill. (Trace Salzbrenner/The Wichita Beacon)

This story was written in collaboration with KMUW’s newsroom.

On a chilly Saturday morning in Wichita, K-96 Fishing Lake is quiet — only one fisherman sits peacefully on the dock, watching the ducks. He has multiple fishing lines out but isn’t having any luck.

The lake just south of the highway along Hydraulic is a well-known fishing hub in the nearby community. Workers at a local bait shop said they’d been fishing there for years, catching and eating the crappie and catfish stocked by the state.

“I used to fish there and always threw back,” said City Council member Brandon Johnson. “But I also know people who take the fish out and eat it.”

The lake is directly north of a toxic site contaminated by a large chemical spill, which state officials estimate happened in the 1970s or ’80s. Last week, city and county elected officials addressed the spill, which contaminated the Union Pacific rail yard’s soil and groundwater with a carcinogenic chemical known as trichloroethene (TCE, also known as trichloroethylene). 

The Union Pacific rail yard is visible in the background of the K-96 Fishing Lake. (Trace Salzbrenner/The Wichita Beacon)

The contaminated groundwater, which is separate from the city’s public water supply, also extends 2.9 miles south of the rail yard site. 

TCE, commonly used to degrease metals, can cause multiple adverse health effects depending on length of exposure to the chemical. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that TCE can cause, among other things, kidney cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma and heart issues. 

The state has developed a $13.9 million plan to clean up TCE in the rail yard and contaminated groundwater, which affects about 2,500 people in northeast Wichita

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment will hold a public meeting Nov. 5 from 1-3 p.m. at the Boys & Girls Club of South Central Kansas, 2400 N. Opportunity Drive in Wichita. Community members can ask questions about the contaminated site and the state’s cleanup plan.

Neither the surface water nor sediment from the fishing lake north of the site has been tested for TCE, according to representatives from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. The state said that there is no need to test it because there is no sign that chemicals from the spill flowed north from the rail yard.  

“The groundwater flows to the south from the spill site,” Mary Daily of KDHE wrote in an email to KMUW. “So, the contaminated groundwater is moving away from the lake, not toward the lake.”

Many community members, though, want the state to test the lake for TCE.

“The state is going to have to test it,” said Treatha Brown-Foster, a member of Northeast Millair Neighborhood Association, which is directly south of the spill. “It needs to be.” 

Johnson, whose district includes the contamination, also wants the state to test the lake.

“It’s hard for me to believe that a spill happened … and that lake is not contaminated,” Johnson said. “I just want to know for sure.”

Irrespective of the 29th and Grove ground contamination, the state has issued an advisory to limit the number of fish eaten from K-96 Fishing Lake due to toxic chemicals known as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) in the water. 

But Daily sees no need to worry about TCE contamination from the rail yard. She said samples were collected from a groundwater monitoring well between the site at 29th and Grove and the lake to the north. No TCE contamination was found at that well. 

The plume of contaminated groundwater spreads 2.9 miles south of the rail yard. (Courtesy KDHE)

“If the chemical spill had flowed to the north toward the lake, the pattern of soil contamination would show that, because some of the chemical would have soaked into the ground in that direction,” Daily wrote. “We don’t see that type of pattern.”

The Wichita Beacon and KMUW shared a map of the state’s monitoring wells and a cross-section of the contaminated site with Patty Bryan, a geologist and co-chair of the Environmental Characterization and Remediation working group within the Association of  Environmental and Engineering Geologists. She said the decision not to test the lake for TCE is sound.

“To me, it looks like they’ve got good data supporting what they’ve done,” Bryan said. “… I know it seems like it should get in that water; it’s so close. But I see why they’re not (testing it).”

To understand the extent of contamination, scientists have to be selective about where they collect samples, she added.

“Otherwise that could generate data that is not even related to this issue,” Bryan said. “And it complicates it.”

The chemicals already in the lake, PCBs, are also known to cause cancer and negatively impact the immune system, reproductive system and nervous system. PCBs settle at the bottom of the lake, contaminating bottom-feeding species such as channel catfish. Currently, KDHE recommends eating only one bottom-feeding fish a month from the lake. 

How to comment 

Community members can comment on the proposed cleanup plan through Oct. 16. Find documents about the proposed remediation plan here or at the Maya Angelou Northeast Library Branch, 3051 E. 21st St. North.

To share feedback, email Mary Daily at Mary.Daily@ks.gov or send a letter to: 

Kansas Department of Health and Environment
Bureau of Environmental Remediation
Attention: Mary Daily, Professional Geologist
1000 S.W. Jackson St., Suite 410
Topeka, KS 66612-1367

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Trace Salzbrenner

Trace Salzbrenner is a community journalist for The Wichita Beacon. Follow him on Twitter @RealTraceAlan.

Celia Hack is a general assignment reporter for KMUW. Before KMUW, she worked at The Wichita Beacon covering local government and as a freelancer for The Shawnee Mission Post and the Kansas Leadership...