Archive for Sunday, November 14, 2010

Rebirth at former Farmland Industries site anticipated to be soon

Closed since 2001, the former Farmland Industries boiler house complex and the surrounding land show the ravages of nearly 50 years of use.

Closed since 2001, the former Farmland Industries boiler house complex and the surrounding land show the ravages of nearly 50 years of use.

November 14, 2010, 12:00 a.m. Updated November 15, 2010, 8:54 a.m.


City plans to clean up Farmland Industries facility east of Lawrence

A tour of the 467-acre former Farmland site, which the city plans to have cleaned up and eventually redeveloped. Enlarge video

Matt Bond is the city engineer responsible for overseeing the cleanup of the former Farmland Industries site. Bond said the city is currently taking bids for the cleanup.

Matt Bond is the city engineer responsible for overseeing the cleanup of the former Farmland Industries site. Bond said the city is currently taking bids for the cleanup.

Nitrogen seeps to the top of certain patches of land on the former Farmland site. Much of the cleanup effort will involve taking care of environmental issues such as the nitrogen that remains from past spills.

Nitrogen seeps to the top of certain patches of land on the former Farmland site. Much of the cleanup effort will involve taking care of environmental issues such as the nitrogen that remains from past spills.

It wasn’t always an eyesore.

Today, that’s hard to believe. The 467-acre former Farmland Industries fertilizer plant sits on the eastern edge of Lawrence with — it seems — no other purpose but to catch blowing trash in its long line of chain-link fences.

As thousands of motorists who drive by the plant on Kansas Highway 10 each day can attest, this industrial relic, which closed in 2001, hasn’t faded away as much as it has rusted into ruin.

But once, it was 1952.

The Jayhawks had won the national championship. Lawrence’s industrial scene was buzzing with a flour mill, a pork and bean factory, bottling companies and other enterprises that seem about as un-Lawrence as purple on a Saturday.

And in that year Kansas City, Mo.-based Farmland Industries began construction of a fertilizer plant east of Lawrence.

By 1954 it had opened, and in the decades that followed there always were debates about how many pollutants the plant injected into the air, concerns about the massive amounts of natural gas used at the facility, and questions about what all that fertilizer had done to the soil and groundwater.

But one thing almost everyone agreed upon was that the plant was an economic engine. Most years it employed 250 people or more, and was among the top taxpayers in Douglas County.

For some, it was even more than that. To men like Dick Lind, the plant was — dare he say it — a fine welcome sign to Lawrence.

“I remember how it looked all lit up at night,” said Lind, who served as plant manager of the facility from about 1979 to its closing. “It was a landmark for east Lawrence. You knew you were coming into a city.”

• • •

The giant hot dog must go. Matt Bond is certain of that.

Bond is the city engineer responsible for overseeing the cleanup of the nearly 500-acre piece of property. He has that job because the city acquired — not purchased, the city manager will remind anyone — the property from Farmland’s bankruptcy trust in September. The city paid nothing for the property and received an $8.6 million trust fund as part of its plan to turn the property into a new business park. But the city also assumed all responsibility for cleaning up decades of nitrogen fertilizer spills that have contaminated the groundwater.

At the moment, that’s not what is on Bond’s mind. The giant hot dog is. You’ve seen it. It is a long steel tank that sits along the front edge of the property next to K-10. The tank has turned brown and bubbled like a stuck weenie over a Boy Scout fire. The city manager has dubbed the tank the giant hot dog, and not because he’s a fan.

Bond is happy to report that a deal has been struck to have the tank moved off the property by early spring. He promises it will be just the beginning.

The city last week received 15 proposals from companies as far away as Michigan to tear down buildings, haul off debris and generally clean the place up. Bond is reviewing the bids — detailed documents stacked as high as a two-wheeled dolly — to recommend the best deal to city commissioners.

He’s optimistic a good deal will be found. In addition to hauling off all the trash, the companies will get to keep an estimated 5,000 tons of metal — everything from pipes to buildings — that can be sold for salvage.

“What I have to make sure of is that we don’t get a contractor that takes all the salvageable material and leaves all the junk,” Bond said. “We’re not going to let that happen.”

Bond expects a contractor to be in place by January, and for much of the demolition to be done by late 2011. The city is planning to leave five buildings on the property to use for storage, although the old office building along K-10 will be torn down, as will pretty much everything else on the southern end of the property that can be seen from the highway.

“It is going to look a lot different,” Bond said. “I’m telling everybody that when we’re done, it won't look like the set of a 'Mad Max' movie anymore."

• • •

From up here, Lawrence’s newest acquisition actually looks pretty.

The northwest corner of the property is high ground, and it provides a nice view of the tops of Kaw Valley trees that are about to turn. Here, the property looks just like any other eastern Kansas hay field, complete with a patch of timber that had about a dozen wild turkeys until a sudden noise spooked them.

But turn your gaze east just a bit, and you’re looking at the dirtiest part of this site, at least from an environmental standpoint. The ground is nearly bare of vegetation, and a white film seeps to the surface. It is nitrogen fertilizer. It has been hanging around for decades.

The area once was home to a giant lagoon that held water used in the fertilizer production process. The water was laced with nitrogen fertilizer, and in time it seeped through whatever liner was in place in the bottom of the lagoon.

Now, there is a bubble of contaminated groundwater beneath the fertilizer site, and the city’s chore for at least the next 20 years will be to ensure the bubble doesn’t spread to adjacent properties.

The city will attempt to control the groundwater the same way Farmland Industries had for many years. Groundwater wells are strategically placed around the property. They pump the groundwater into one of three holding areas — a 5.5 million gallon tank, a 3 million gallon tank or a 16 million gallon lagoon. From there, the city will ship the water through a long-existing pipeline that crosses the Kansas River into rural North Lawrence. Several area farmers get free access to the fertilizer-enriched water to put on their fields.

Making sure that system continues to work is a big part of what the city has signed up to do at this site. But it is not the only thing. Filling old lagoons and rehabilitating some of the “hot” soil also must be done.

Those parts of the projects had created question marks for years about how much it would cost to complete those tasks. Some question marks remain. The city received $8.6 million for environmental cleanup work, but the Kansas Department of Health and Environment estimates it will take more than $10 million to do the job.

But city leaders believe they can do it more cheaply. Where KDHE assumed hired contractors would do some of the work, the city plans to use city crews. Plus, the city hopes to generate revenue by selling clean pieces of property to potential new business tenants. Proceeds from those sales could be used to help pay for the cleanup and the new infrastructure that will have to be built on the property.

So, yes, the city has a plan. But now the biggest question may be: what surprises may be waiting around the corner? The property has been poked and prodded for years by environmental engineers to find if something more dangerous than nitrogen fertilizer lurks beneath the surface.

Bond has been looking for it too. He bites his tongue when he starts to say the project is past the point of major surprises. That’s the type of temptation that awakens fate. Instead, he says he hasn’t seen anything that makes him think the city is in over its head.

“We’re not dealing with Love Canal here,” Bond said. “We’re really not.”

But that’s not to say there won’t be twists and turns. In Bond, the city may have found the right man to roll with them.

“My theory is that if you always are going to view the glass half-empty,” Bond said, “you’re not going to get very far in life.”

• • •

$100 million. As you walk around the Farmland property — the railroad tracks covered by weeds, the concrete piers that have crumbled, the leaky buildings that you could hold a football scrimmage in — that number bounces around your head.

That’s how much Lind — the former plant manager — estimates Farmland invested into the plant’s equipment and building over the years.

Now, when you walk into the control room — the place where supervisors oversaw the production of more than 1 million pounds of different fertilizer types per year — the walls are covered in graffiti. A printer jammed with paper still sits along a wall. Switches that now control nothing tempt visitors to push them.

“I haven’t been back there for quite a while,” Lind says of the plant. “Some things you just want to remember them the way they were.”

Allen Rogers has not had that luxury. He worked at the plant for 31 years, serving as its chief chemist and environmental coordinator. When the plant shut down, he stayed on with the bankruptcy trust to show it the ins and outs of the property. He’s on a short-term contract with the city to do the same for it.

He works in the same laboratory building he did all those years. Although he doesn’t say much, he does acknowledge it hasn’t been fun to watch the place fall down around him.

“It has been sad,” Rogers said. “No doubt about that. It was a good job for a lot of people. This place fed a lot of people for a lot of years.”

The big bet in Lawrence City Hall is that someday it will once again.


Tyson Travis 7 years, 7 months ago

Just a question, why do they plan to tear down the old headquarters office building on 23rd St? I realize it's over 50 years old and probably needs repair, but it looked to me on driving by that it was one of the few pieces of the old plant that was worth saving. Prime location, lots of parking, etc. Couldn't some charitable or nonprofit organization make use of it? No problem with getting rid of the old production facilities and "giant hot dog," but I think the office building could find a creative reincarnation.

miker 7 years, 7 months ago

I thought the other day ! Use those buildings !

LogicMan 7 years, 7 months ago

Prime road frontage. Will be redeveloped -- new roads, parking lots, etc. according to a master plan (created yet?). But the first steps are to clear off the land, and continue cleaning up.

If more water needs to be pumped-out, or nitrogen rich soil scraped-off, the farm fields to the east would appear to benefit from such.

Tyson Travis 7 years, 7 months ago

Second post on what I mentioned above...You could turn the office building into office space for the industrial park management, storage for a food bank, a 9-1-1 call center or LPD/DC Sheriff remote site [at least give them someplace to go to recharge their radar guns]. There's been a lot of infighting I've read about lately on wanting to make a homeless shelter someplace in a residential area [which naturally the local residents are against.] At least for now, this is out in the country, several families could be housed here until they're back on their feet. Again, an engineering study would have to be made to judge the state of preservation of the building, but it looks well-preserved, no nitrogen was produced inside there. Somebody needs to come up with some creative ideas rather than just bulldoze the place because it doesn't fit with your pre-conceived site plan. I've mentioned a few, certainly someone else has a brilliant idea. Tearing down a sound building in a good location is a waste of resources.

50YearResident 7 years, 7 months ago

This glass is half empty and leaves a bad taste. We will soon find out just "how good of a deal" this project is.

Smarmy_Schoolmarm 7 years, 7 months ago

“It is going to look a lot different,” Bond said. “I’m telling everybody that when we’re done, it • • •"

I can't hold my breath much longer.

Chad Lawhorn 7 years, 7 months ago

That was a technical error on our part. The quote as it appeared it the Sunday newspaper was: "I'm telling everybody that when we're done, it won't look like the set of a 'Mad Max' movie anymore." I've corrected the online version to read accurately.

Chad Lawhorn Journal-World

Richard Heckler 7 years, 7 months ago

The city got stuck with this project. Farmland filed bankruptcy and got away. I say stop spending on other "so called business projects and new infrastructure" until this monster is cleaned up and functioning as a business park.

In spite of the city commissioners always saying we're broke they seem to find millions to spend on projects of their choice.

50YearResident 7 years, 7 months ago

The city made a great effort to "stick" themselves with this project, and it is a monster.

kernal 7 years, 7 months ago

Or, up the littering fines so people will quit dumping trash out of their cars onto the parking lot, sidewalks, streets and neighborhood yards as I've seen too many people do. I don't litter, but if I did a $500 first offense fine would make me seriously reconsider it.

People should be held responsible for their litter, not the taxpayers (government).

Jock Navels 7 years, 7 months ago

before you tear it down, shop it around hollywood as a setting for an apocalyptic dystopian science fiction movie...blow it up, make a fistful of dollars...then tear it down.

LogicMan 7 years, 7 months ago

Too much liability for the city, who also wisely wants to move fast on the clean-up.

Might be quite a lot of asbestos in that boiler complex (firebrick/insulation), on piping, etc., unless it has already been removed.

Kris_H 7 years, 7 months ago

You really can't tell by a drive-by look at a building what kind of shape it's in. Building codes and what's considered essential can change a lot in fifty years.

Especially if it's been unoccupied for a long time, there could be all kinds of damage that isn't showing on the outside--roof leaks, plumbing failures, rotting wallboard, pest invasions, etc. etc. etc.

Probably has inadequate wiring for modern office space, too.

I generally agree with "use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without" but sometimes you just can't. I'd be more worried about the ecological condition of that land than about anything else, to tell the truth.

George Lippencott 7 years, 7 months ago

Well, I am glad we are approaching this with a smiley face. I have heard estimates from responsible but unnamed officials that indicate the cost of clean-up at the facility at about $13M (a bit more than the $9M we got). Than there will be costs to connect the facility to the town. I suspect there will be a few million in that. So, at the end of the day the taxpayers of our city will be on the hook for as much as $7-10M. I wonder if we can attract businesses that will pay taxes to reimbursement our investment.

Oh, wait a minute, new business does not pay taxes here. Well, maybe the employees will – oops they will not be able to afford to live here. Anybody note the direction of travel of those who work in our business park now? East-maybe?? Just who will actually benefit? Well, our local construction and maintenance contractors (large) will certainly see some of that money. Maybe the jobs they bring will help us a bit – oops they don’t live in the city, either. ??

City acquired property with a large future price tag. City purchased buildings paid for with taxes because the market makes selling them commercially very iffy. City responsibility for properties not in the city and presumable not paying taxes to the city. Who benefits? But we do it all with a smile. Keep on smiling.

pace 7 years, 7 months ago

Leaving the site to be a seeping sore was a popular idea of people who don't understand water and soil systems. I feel blessed that the pollution is being dealt with and the site can be used by future industry. I look forward to this location being an industrial site again. I hope the new industries will be good neighbors. I like business, industry, jobs but to use how many jobs Farmland made as a reason the industry was allowed to run it like a cess pool Not good enough. They spent a ton of money, had a lot of employees, had bad environmental habits. Took their profits, transferred the assets, bolted like the crooks they were. they didn't give jobs, they hired people to work, the employees weren't given their pay, they earned it. Farmland was a dirty plant, led by liars and cheats. I remember when they poured yellow flecks all over East Lawrence, coating cars, homes, playgrounds. Said it was harmless. Farmland land is tainted and the people who say the jobs made up for all their crooked dirty ways are just wrong. Those people certainly don't appreciate the decent corporations that enable jobs without leaving a super fund site. It like saying a wife and child beater should be tolerated because he holds down a good job or played great ball.

George Lippencott 7 years, 7 months ago

But that is the point pace. Why are we paying for it? I agree, I am willing to tax myself something to at last make the place less of an eye and environmental disaster. Beyond that I am not convinced. I ALSO believe our lawgivers should be honest with us and present the range of possible costs and not so much of a happy face at the low end.

pace 7 years, 7 months ago

But? That was the point, Next time you hear a congressman or senator say the environmentalist are demanding too much of companies, remember who pays to clean up their mess. Leaving the mess to continue to seep is not a smart move. It is not tree hugging bunny loving nonsense to hold corporations and its officers to a standard that doesn't leave seeping sores for neighbors to clean up. If they can't run their business in a way that doesn't ruin ground water or the neighbors field, they should be held accountable. The article keeps harping about the great jobs. Well their desertion of their responsibility creates even more jobs. Cleaning up their slop. It isn't free market to use public water ways and the neighbors field to absorb your cost. Farmland cut their corners on our dime. I am glad the city is fixing what has become a public liability, I know we need industry. It is stupid to say those jobs should excuse Farmland from responsible practice. Farmland made a lot of money, transferred it to officers and shareholders then filed for bankruptcy. Farmland and its managers were cheats and liars, The people worked hard, they earned their pay. It isn't the employees who pulled this.

fu7il3 7 years, 7 months ago

can't wait to see it turned to even more business space that will sit there empty like the rest of it.

somebodynew 7 years, 7 months ago

Yeah, but in the meantime let's approval all the industrial zoning and island annexations on Farmer's Turnpike because we "need" more land. Guess it doesn't matter that the infrastructure isn't in place and the Fire Department is being asked to respond several miles outside the city limits.

kernal 7 years, 7 months ago

Or built to only last twenty years like so many tract homes these days. You know who you are.

Write2Know 7 years, 7 months ago

I'd like to see a 4 lane trafficway connecting K-10 to downtown Lawrence be built through the property.

somebodynew 7 years, 7 months ago

Even if you aren't being sarcastic, you know that would take at least 50 years because I am sure there would be endangered frogs, snakes, or holy ground found there and it wouldn't matter how many times a court ruled, there would still be another appeal or a new lawsuit on some ground or another.

Alabamastreet 7 years, 7 months ago

I'm glad the city took control of it, and that end of the city will be a nice representation for Larry in years to come (well, as long as you ignore the prison . . .). But seriously, that end of town is shaping up and will be even better soon. Mr. Bond sounds like he has a good head on his shoulders.

George Lippencott 7 years, 7 months ago

Are you paying for it? I agree that the Sheppard sound like a good choice

50YearResident 7 years, 7 months ago

I am still scratching my head trying to figure out how the firm in KC bought a vested intrest in the $10 million funds set aside for cleaning up the property and evidently recieved $1.4 million dollors for doing nothing. Anyone have the explanation for that?

somebodynew 7 years, 7 months ago

Sounds like they were just smarter and faster than the rest (aka City).

gorilla10 7 years, 7 months ago

Can't wait to drive into east Lawrence and not have to look at this pile of crap!!! Who cares what they do with it, as long as its gone and cleaned up!! Hopefully, in about 5 years or so we will just stay on the new south Lawrence trafficway and miss the crazy traffic every day!!!

Flap Doodle 7 years, 7 months ago

Remember the Wizard of OZ theme park project that got derailed a few years ago? Maybe they'll build it on the Farmland site. Wouldn't that be jolly fun?

LogicMan 7 years, 7 months ago

Or maybe something unique to draw in visitors from far and wide, such as the world's biggest Putt-Putt. A thousand holes, all par one?

gorilla10 7 years, 7 months ago

hah, Including a Nitrogen river running along the back 9 and a sand trap filled with what they would like to call sand!

steveguy 7 years, 7 months ago

There was another buyer for this site at one time but the city wanted it so the other buyer was pushed out. Big mistake on the citys part getting this land. But you city property owners will end up paying, paying and paying BIG TIME for the citys mistake.

George Lippencott 7 years, 7 months ago

I might remind all that the "lawgivers" of the past knew or should have known what was going on out there. They protected it from the impact it should have enjoyed and now we are faced with cleaning it up.

Government is government. The new guys are not good guys because the old guys make different stupid and self-serving decisions. Are these new decisions really in our interest? Clean up would have happened anyway as the fund was there and the system would have ultimately addressed it without our assuming responsibility and increasing our property taxes. I doubt there are many here who ever benefitted from the site so why should they pay for past criminal action (coverup).

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