The Sunflower State is experiencing some drama due to the fact that some Kansas residents recently discovered that they’re drinking contaminated water… and have been for a long time.
Back in 2011, the state found water that had been tainted by perchloroethylene (PCE), a common chemical used in dry cleaning. According to an explosive report in The Wichita Eagle, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) then waited six years to report and investigate the area; they thought water was flowing away from private wells, only to realize in 2017 that the opposite was true.
People are understandably furious about this discovery. PCE can cause a slew of health problems if ingested. Short-term effects include dizziness, nausea and vomiting, headaches, and lack of coordination. Long-terms effects can alter mood, memory, attention, reaction time, vision, and may even be linked to certain cancers.
Despite the fact that PCE is almost exclusively used in dry cleaning businesses (and that contamination has been consistently linked to such businesses), the KDHE is encouraged to ignore these areas by the Kansas Drycleaner Environmental Response Act. It was originally enacted to protect dry cleaners from high federal costs — the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is allowed to pay for the cleaning of contaminated waters and then bill any companies associated with the property to recover its money. Since cleaning up pollution can easily cost millions of dollars, Kansas state law limits the amount a dry cleaning shop needs to reimburse the EPA to $5,000. As a result, some affected residents now feel that the state cared more about dry cleaners than its own citizens.
“You think they would have notified everybody, taken some precautions until something was done,” said Joe Hufman, a resident whose private well was tainted by the chemical. “Instead, they all kept quiet. They didn’t let anybody know about the contamination, so we all continued to drink the water.”
Considering that Americans are consuming 38% more water than they did 15 years ago, it’s surprising that the KDHE’s response — or lack thereof — didn’t have more of an impact. Unfortunately, KDHE just doesn’t have the funding to continue searching for more evidence of contamination and focusing on its cleanup. Its director of environment Leo Henning stated:
“There’s never going to be enough money to do everything at once, so we have to prioritize. Right now our main challenge — and where we’re trying to get to — is making sure there are no Kansans drinking contaminated water.”
With over 80% of hazardous waste sites in the U.S. having adversely impacted the quality of nearby groundwater, it is simply impossible to know how many other small towns and private wells have been compromised like Haysville.
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