Editorial: Getting help with Farmland

The city of Lawrence is right to seek assistance with the former Farmland Industries fertilizer plant for which it’s now responsible.

The city is accepting bids from consulting firms to help develop a site cleanup plan that is both affordable and environmentally safe.

The city took ownership of the former fertilizer plant in 2010 with plans to use part of the 467-acre site for a new business park, VenturePark. The city paid nothing for the property but accepted responsibility for remediating environmental issues, primarily cleanup and disposal of decades worth of nitrogen fertilizer spills.

The city received an $8.6 million trust fund that Farmland had set aside for cleanup. Originally, the plan was to invest the trust fund and use the fund plus accumulated interest to pay for the cleanup. But the city greatly overestimated the interest it would earn on the investments, and the cleanup costs exceed the funds available, which are now about $4.5 million, the city reported.

The city’s original plan to distribute nitrogen-contaminated water from the site by pipeline to farms that could use it as fertilizer is inadequate because there simply aren’t enough farms to absorb the water. Storage tanks at the Farmland site are already filled to capacity with the contaminated water. As a result, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment recently authorized the city to release up to 30 million gallons of nitrogen water into the Kansas River.

Brandon McGuire, assistant to the city manager, said the city began considering a consultant-led study when the nitrogen-water distribution and storage methods currently in place became insufficient.

“The goal through this process, is to make sure that the money that we spend on a consultant contract really does get us what we need and what we want,” McGuire said. “And that the consultants have what they need to avoid confusion and delay in working through the contract once we get going with it.”

Plans are to accept bids this month and present a recommendation to the City Commission by March. The goal is to have a study completed and a plan in place by the end of 2018. As McGuire noted last week, “the city committed to stewardship of this property into perpetuity.”

Clearly mistakes have been made since the city acquired the Farmland Industries site and then city can ill afford more. The time has come to get help with identifying a cleanup approach that is both fiscally and environmentally sound.