The Black and White Disparities of Brush Creek

By Maya Brown-Edwards

Howard University News Service

Terrence McKelvy went on his daily bike ride around Kansas City, Missouri, arbitrarily choosing Brush Creek as his trail of choice one Monday morning. Roughly one mile into his ride, he saw a man standing near the water’s edge with a video camera. McKelvy decided to inquire about what he was recording. As he came closer, McKelvy immediately  saw dead catfish, shad and carp floating on the surface of Brush Creek – 52,000 rotting fish as he would later learn.

McKelvy began to go live on Facebook, showing his followers the mass fish kill. Recorded near Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevard and Prospect Avenue last summer, his viral video garnered nearly 20,000 views since its posting on June 14, 2021.

Many viewers expressed shock, and those who lived nearby complained that this wouldn’t happen on the whiter, wealthier, west side of Brush Creek. Following the viral video, viewers notified the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) and other agencies about the fish kill.

In response, MDC released a statement saying: “A heavy rain event in the area on June 11 may have raised water levels and caused the carp to swim upstream into that area. When water levels dropped, they could not swim back out to the Blue River, which connects with the Missouri River.” The department also attributed the kill to concrete structures in the creek as well as low oxygen levels.

MDC’s answer didn’t satisfy McKelvy. “While I don’t doubt that narrative played a part in it, I don’t think that that was it,” McKelvy said. “Because you go a little bit further west to the Plaza area and Brush Creek — same creek— doesn’t look like that; doesn’t look the same as it does on the east side of town. So, that’s unfortunate.”

The Troost Divide

The east side of Brush Creek near the fish kill is not immune to such catastrophes. However, the west side of Brush Creek, home to the Country Club Plaza, maintains its polished exterior and reputation as one of wealthiest districts in Kansas City. The stark differences between the east and west of Brush Creek are black and white, and that is because, it is simply that, literally.

The east side of Kansas City is primarily occupied by the Black population of the city, middle to low class while the west side is considered to be “wealthier” and is predominantly white. The line that splits the two down the middle is known as “The Troost Divide.” Troost Avenue is symbolic of the great socioeconomic and racial divide in Kansas City between Blacks and whites. It represents the disinvestment of the east and its infrastructure as well as the disinterest in its residents and their overall health compared to the west. It could be argued that the line has recently been pushed further back east to Prospect.

In an interview with KCTV5, MDC’s Bill Graham stated, “They say in this area of older Kansas City the sanitary and the storm water sewer systems are combined, and when you get heavy rains, it’s possible that it’s connected to the heavy rain event of last week where really heavy rains overload the system and put sewage into Brush Creek.”

Brush Creek is 10.5 miles long and runs from West 80th Street and Lamar Avenue in Overland Park, Kansas, to Blue Banks Avenue and Hardesty Avenue in Kansas City, Missouri, which drains to the Blue River.

U.S. v. the City of Kansas City, Missouri

On May 18, 2010, on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Department of Justice filed a complaint against the City of Kansas City, Missouri for its continued violation of the Clean Water Act (CWA) and “the terms of the city’s National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits for operation of its sewer system.”  Dischargement of “untreated sewage from its sewage collection system, including but not limited to” its Combined Sewer Overflows (CSO) and Sanitary Sewer Overflows (SSO) to waters throughout the United States of America including the Missouri River and Brush Creek.

According to epa.gov, “Since 2002, the City has experienced approximately 1,300 illegal overflows, including CSOs, SSOs, and private property backups, from its [publicly owned treatment works]. The 2010 article continued, “These overflows have caused an annual discharge of approximately 6.5 billion gallons of untreated sewage into waters of the United States.”

Dubbed the Kansas City, Missouri Clean Water Act Settlement, the city was now required to implement an effective overflow control plan. Estimated to exceed $2.5 billion in cost, this was in extensive effort to “eliminate unauthorized overflows of untreated raw sewage and to reduce pollution levels in urban storm water.” Additionally, Kansas City, Missouri was ordered to pay a civil penalty to the United States amounting to $600,000.

Since its original lodging in 2010, the Decree has been amended three times (2015, 2018), most recently being in 2021. In 2021, it was essentially agreed to extend the completion date from the original year 2035 to now 2040 due to lack of ratepayers funding.

E.coli has been found in Bush Creek, and residents are concerned about a lack of urgency in beginning projects for Brush Creek under this plan.

“I’m willing to bet that there’s not a lot of people in that general area that even know that,” McKelvy said.

He doesn’t believe the city of Kansas City has been inclusive of its Black community when making environmental decisions. “Absolutely not.”  ,

“This is rhetorical —, but how many public forums have they held asking what the problem is? Are there problematic areas? They’re probably taking that money and going west of Troost because it’s significantly cleaner.”

MDC fisheries management biologist, Jake Colehour said that there is not vast difference in the quality of water on the east and west sides of Brush Creek, but on the west, the Plaza area, gondola rides are offered on the creek while residents on the east are subject to excessive litter.

“What I’d like to see the city do is do their dang on job,” McKelvy said. Kansas City Parks & Recreation is responsible for the maintenance of the trails along Brush Creek and its greenway.

“The problem is getting even worse now because of the booming homeless population that is popping up in areas like Brush Creek, right along the creek side, and they are dumping their trash down in there.”

Maya Brown-Edwards, who grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, is a reporter for HUNewsService.com.