aujanae bennett in her neighborhood.
Aujanae Bennett, president of the neighborhood association in Northeast Millair, is running the survey. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)

A federal holiday since 1986, Martin Luther King Jr. Day will be observed in Wichita on Monday, Jan. 16. Local celebrations are planned featuring opportunities for prayer, volunteerism and community fellowship. One neighborhood activist hopes to use the opportunity to survey Black community members about any unexplained health problems.

Aujanae Bennett, president of the Northeast Millair Neighborhood Association, started conducting the survey last year after she learned about a toxic chemical spill that occurred decades ago and spread into groundwater beneath the neighborhoods near 29th and Grove. 

Trichloroethylene (TCE) was found in the groundwater in a plume that runs down Grove Street from 29th to Murdock. The carcinogenic chemical was discovered to be in the water in 1994 but Bennett and other community members say they were never informed until 2022. 

Where will the survey be conducted? 

Bennett will be at the WSU Metroplex, at 29th and Oliver, with the Greater Wichita Ministerial League, who will be holding a worship celebration with keynote speakers. Bennett will be there from noon until the event is over. 

Environmental attorney Wendy Kerner will be with her to answer questions, hand out information and direct people to take the health survey, which is online. 

Kerner “will be there to answer questions on the legality of it all and to meet the people. She will also answer questions on everything she and her firm are doing to help us, but mostly to meet the people really,” Bennett said. 

Why conduct the health survey? 

The location of the TCE plume. (KDHE)

Bennett wants to find how many people within the plume of TCE may have been affected with health issues. 

The initial risk assessment conducted by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) in the 1990s said the chemical in the water shouldn’t put residents at risk. Residents – who complain of unexplained illnesses – fear the assessment wasn’t good enough. 

TCE can cause adverse health effects to the liver, kidneys, reproductive system and more. These can show up as kidney disease, cancer, infertility and miscarriage.

“It would definitely be a concern if people were drinking or bathing in well water, but all the homes and businesses (in the affected area) have water from the city of Wichita. And all of those lines were already in place at the time of the spill,” Mary Daily, KDHE project manager of the 29th and Grove site, told The Community Voice. 

That claim has been challenged. At a community meeting held at the Boys and Girls Club in Wichita on Nov. 6, a community member told KDHE representatives that his house is still connected to a well water system.

Bennett says that if you live over the plume of TCE, she wants to hear from you so that everyone’s experience can be captured.

MLK Jr. Day Events

76th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Heroes & Sheroes Breakfast
Time: 7:30 a.m. 
Location: Rhatigan Student Center Beggs Ballroom at Wichita State University

MLK Day of Service (wall framing with Habitat for Humanity)
Time: 8-11:30 a.m.
Location: Bob Brown Expo Hall at Century II Performing Arts & Convention Center

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Worship Celebration
Time: noon
Location: Eugene M. Hughes Metropolitan Complex at Wichita State University

15th Annual MLK Commemoration
Time: 6 p.m.
Location: Cadman Art Gallery in the Rhatigan Student Center at Wichita State University

Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Service
Time: 7:06 p.m.
Location: Calvary Baptist Church

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