City commissioners are ready to rattle the dice - if not yet quite ready to roll them - on purchasing the environmentally contaminated Farmland Industries site.
A majority of commissioners said they're willing to strongly consider assuming the legal liability to clean up the property, if that is what it takes to gets plans moving to convert the eyesore into a new business park.
"I want to see us move forward," Mayor Sue Hack said. "We have a serious need for industrial land, and it gives us an opportunity to control a gateway to the community."
Since July, city commissioners have said they want to purchase the 467-acre site east of Lawrence on Kansas Highway 10 from the bankruptcy trust that currently controls the property. But commissioners previously have said they did not want to take on any legal liability to clean up the site. Instead, they wanted the bankruptcy trust to maintain the legal liability to clean up the site.
But within the past week, regulators with the Kansas Department of Environment have expressed concerns about the city's plan. John Mitchell, the interim director of environment for KDHE, said having the city take over the cleanup would be better than leaving it up to the private trust, which is not obligated to continue cleaning the property once the $5.2 million trust fund is depleted.
Commissioners did not formally agree to change the city's bid to the bankruptcy court to accept responsibility for the cleanup. But commissioners did direct staff members to do the necessary legwork so that they could submit a new bid in the future.
Mitchell - who also is a Lawrence school board member - said he thinks it is likely that the property can be cleaned up with the remaining $5.2 million in the trust fund. But he told commissioners at Tuesday evening's meeting that he couldn't guarantee it.
"We can't give you the assurance that you would like," Mitchell said. "Something else could be uncovered. It is an industrial site that operated before there was much in the way of environmental regulation. You can never be certain about those sorts of sites."
But Mitchell did try to assure commissioners that the type of known contamination at the site is very manageable. He said the main environmental issue is groundwater and soil that is contaminated with nitrates. The nitrates - basically crop-grade fertilizer - aren't harmful to the touch but can cause problems if ingested. Specifically, it can cause "blue baby syndrome" in infants, which can lead to death.
Mitchell, though, said a current set of pumps, wells and stormwater collection ponds on the property are doing a good job containing the contamination and slowly abating it. He also said the site has a built-in disposal system for the millions of gallons of water that the pumps suck from the ground. The fertilizer-laced water currently is pumped to North Lawrence, where several farmers use it to irrigate crops.
But the risks of a new environmental liability being found became evident in the last few months. In December, a buried landfill of several acres was found on the site. KDHE regulators said it likely will not need to be cleaned up, but rather agreements will have to be made that the site can not be disturbed.
City Manager David Corliss said it is those type of incidents that worry him about accepting liability for the site.
"I'm worried about finding any more hidden jewels and having a contingency for that," Corliss said.
In other news, commissioners:
¢ approved plans to seek a new study on the timing of a proposed $88 million sewage treatment plant on a 3-1 vote. Commissioner Mike Amyx voted against, with Commissioner Mike Dever absent.
¢ approved the 2008 Street Maintenance Program.