By Jill Draper
Cleanup specialists are asking the public if anyone has suggestions on how to address various spots of contamination left over from the former Richards-Gebaur Air Force Base in south Kansas City. If enough people are interested, a community group called a restoration advisory board will be formed. The last time such a board met was 10 years ago.
The Air Force’s goal is to ensure there are no ongoing or future health risks at the base, says environmental engineer Kay Grosinske, who is managing much of the cleanup. She wants to restore the entire site back to residential rather than industrial-safe levels, even though chances are slim that housing will be developed there.
“We want it to be completely reusable,” says Grosinske, who is stationed in San Antonio, Texas, but has been working on contamination issues at the site for 25 years.
The base was active during World War II and the Cold War years, but was shut down in 1994 when most of the land was transferred to KCMO. Twenty years ago Port KC was tasked with establishing an industrial hub there. Now the hub is a commerce park near I-49 and 150 Highway. Together with other properties, the area has been branded as 49 Crossing.
While the military no longer owns the Air Force base, they remain responsible for its cleanup. Grosinske says most cleanup efforts have been directed at groundwater, although one major past project was removing airborne asbestos from steam heating pipes and transformers in military buildings. In another project nicknamed “the Big Dig,” massive amounts of soil from a fuel tank yard and a firing range were scooped out. According to Grosinske, toxins in the soil never registered at the hazardous level, and the dirt was used as daily cover for a landfill.
Her current team is tackling three small stubborn spots of TCE (trichloroethylene), often used as a de-greasing solvent, that have seeped through the dirt into shallow plumes of groundwater. In one location engineers and other specialists spent 11 years tracking down a plume that was unexpectedly discovered beneath an old military communications building. The structure was torn down and soil was excavated to bedrock-depth of 16 feet.
“We will never know how the TCE got there,” says Groskinske, who observes the building contained the telephone mainframe, radar and microwave equipment. “The plume is reduced quite significantly, but the work is still ongoing.”
Groundwater at the former base is somewhat saline and not used for public drinking water, Grosinske adds, noting the groundwater moves slowly and doesn’t seem to spread.
In 2015 the Air Force began looking at the presence of PFAS, a family of thousands of manmade chemicals used in clothes, carpet, cookware and packaging. At Richards-Gebaur, PFAS were added to water to suffocate fires in a training area that held a mockup of an airplane.
PFAS are a widespread issue. According to one report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, PFAS are in the blood of 97% of Americans and more than 9,000 of these synthetic chemicals have been identified. They may contribute to cancer, increased cholesterol and problems with the immune system. Firefighters who used fire-fighting foam have had more exposure than others.
PFAS are considered an emerging contaminant with years of study needed to determine what is an acceptable level of risk. According to Grosinske, the Air Force is at the forefront of investigating this issue and will resume an in-depth examination of these chemicals in groundwater in 2024. There is no current PFAS risk at Richards-Gebaur, she says, because no one is using the groundwater for drinking.
For more information on joining the community advisory board, email her by June 15 at firstname.lastname@example.org or call Public Affairs at 866-725-7617.
1 thought on “Contamination clean up at Richards-Gebaur has been a 25-year project”
There’s more to RG contamination, I personally helped bury some. You need to expose all of the toxins!