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State authorizes Lawrence to release up to 30 million gallons of nitrogen-contaminated water into Kansas River

The former Farmland site is seen in this aerial photograph on Monday, July 1, 2013.

The former Farmland site is seen in this aerial photograph on Monday, July 1, 2013.

November 10, 2017


The state has authorized the City of Lawrence to release millions of gallons of nitrogen-contaminated water from the former Farmland fertilizer plant into the Kansas River.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment authorized the city to release the nitrogen water under certain conditions for the next several months. Nitrogen can be harmful, but KDHE officials said they don’t expect any impact because the nitrogen will be heavily diluted.

“We’ve conditioned this discharge so that the river really assimilates the nitrogen load quickly and disperses it,” said Tom Stiles, assistant director of the KDHE Bureau of Water. “And we don’t anticipate any significant change in noticeable conditions going downstream as we head down the river toward the Johnson County area.”

The city is authorized to release up to 30 million gallons of nitrogen-contaminated water from now until April 1, according to Stiles.

The city owns the Farmland property and is legally responsible for remediating decades of nitrogen fertilizer spills that contaminated the groundwater. The original plan to dispense the water is no longer sufficient and storage tanks are at capacity.

Nutrient pollution

Too much nitrogen in the water — a form of nutrient pollution — can cause large algae blooms that harm water quality and habitats and decrease the oxygen that fish and other aquatic animals need to survive, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Nitrates in drinking water can be harmful to humans, especially infants.

Under the KDHE authorization, the city cannot release more than 500,000 gallons of nitrogen water per day, Stiles said. In addition, he said the discharge could only occur when the river flow is over 1,000 cubic feet per second. The city must test nitrogen and ammonia levels in the discharge and monitor for buildup of algae or plant growth downstream.

Stiles said the nitrogen water will be released via existing infrastructure of ditches and culverts. He said the city already had a discharge permit, via the National Pollutant Discharge System, to release nitrogen water after heavy rainfall and that the new authorization is “piggy-backing” on the existing permit.

Previously, the city was planning to transport the nitrogen water by truck to area farmers, where it could be applied to fields as fertilizer.

An alternative to trucking

City Manager Tom Markus told the City Commission about the discharge authorization this week. He said that being able to release the nitrogen water into the river provides relief for the city in several ways. Markus said hauling water by truck would have negatively affected the environment, area infrastructure and the city’s budget.

“Water is heavy and it’s expensive to move, and millions of gallons of water needed to be transported away from the site,” Markus said.

When asked why KDHE would authorize release into the river when the city was planning to truck the water, Stiles said the monitored discharge of the nitrogen water is safer than the city’s trucking plan.

“The volume of water that ultimately might have had to be trucked out meant that we were potentially talking thousands of truckloads moving in and out of the Farmland site,” Stiles said. “We felt like that might represent a greater safety and environmental impact than authorizing this discharge through the existing permit under certain conditions.”

There would also have been a significant financial cost. Markus said the trucking would have cost approximately $400,000. He said the city has been working with KDHE to come up with an alternative and that temporarily being able to release the water gives the city time to find a better solution.

“This relief will allow for the city to investigate long-term, sustainable options for a remediation plan and additional land application,” Markus said.

Fewer farmers

When the city took over the Farmland property in 2010, the plan was to use a pipeline running from the site to the other side of the river to dispense nitrogen water directly to nearby farmers. That method became insufficient due to improved water extraction and a decrease in the number of farms near the pipeline.

"But over time, the farming uses on those properties have changed," Markus said. "We’ve lost some of those properties, and we don’t have enough places to apply that nitrogen-aided water."

In addition to the discharge authorization, KDHE previously authorized the city to turn off its water collection pumps for six months and increase well monitoring to make sure the nitrogen-contaminated water does not leave the Farmland site.

The city took ownership of the former Farmland Industries fertilizer plant with the plan of using part of the 467-acre site for its new business park, VenturePark. The city paid nothing for the property and received the $8.6 million trust fund to pay for remediation. The city accepted full responsibility, via a contract with the KDHE, for the cleanup. In addition to the nitrogen water remediation issues, the city recently found that its staff had grossly overestimated the earning projections for the trust fund, which has created questions about how the city will fund future remediation activities.


Brock Masters 5 months, 2 weeks ago

The City of Lawrence will knowingly put contaminated water into the river - all Lawrencians who bash industrial polluters should be proud.

Bash Tyson but your city is just as bad.

Bob Summers 5 months, 2 weeks ago

This is how congenital Liberals behave. Total disregard for propriety. They have been a bane to mankind since time immortal.

Jeremy Smith 5 months, 2 weeks ago

So according to liberal logic, we must clean up our air or we will all burn to death but we can go ahead and pollute freshwater as much as possible? Someone should send the bill for this to Dave Corliss. This was his crappy idea and probably part of the reason he high tailed it out of here before this year.

Ken Lassman 5 months, 2 weeks ago

Liberal? I don't think so. How is this money saving, pollution regulation-relaxing move not consistent with stated conservative goals?

The article states that the city says that the number of farms that originally were to receive the nitrogen-rich water has been reduced, but that doesn't make sense to me. Where did they go? After all, last time I checked we haven't had much luck moving farms. I think the Journal World could do a little more in-depth explanation here. Maybe the number of farms who use irrigation have been reduced? What kind of outreach has the city done to get the word out amongst Kaw Valley farmers to get free, nitrogen-rich water for irrigation? Is the water have nitrogen at so low a level that it's not an effective fertilizer?

Ultimately, the amount of nitrogen runoff from area fields along the Kaw River is probably considerably greater than what this project will add, but once again it would be interesting to see those numbers to put this proposed discharge in context. At the very least it would have been good for the JW to provide a link to the proposal the City made to KDHE.

Ron Holzwarth 5 months, 2 weeks ago

It's all right. The state will issue an advisory for all of the fish to swim upstream from Lawrence.

Ken Schmidt 5 months, 2 weeks ago

Hmm, oooooor, we can figure out a way to make it available to local farmers who could always use a nitrogen resource for their farming needs. I can't say that I know the chemical makeup of the wastewater, but it would seem that if the KDHE feels it is safe enough to dump in the river, it should be safe enough to use in crop fields--since part of our sanitation comes from the same body of water. I suppose they want it done now rather than a sensible solution which might take longer.

---> And Bob, I am not sure how this conforms to your tired response of congenital liberal...or any other form of political affiliation. The ground water has a pollutant which our city allowed to exist and build. We gave the same company a quick out and under-billed for the cleanup. We spent the money rather than save it for the actual use...and now we choose to cry to the federal and state cronies for permission to dump it in a body of water which makes it a problem for someone else down-river too. Way I see it, that makes it everyone's problem. Not just those of somebody who wears a lapel pin of one color or another.

Dorothy Hoyt-Reed 5 months, 2 weeks ago

Facts do fall under the definition of "congenital liberal" for Bob.

Eric Kirkendall 5 months, 2 weeks ago

Of the two options, dumping in the river might have a lower pollution impact than the other bad alternative they compared it to.

But, re the idea of 'dispersing' the nitrogen and the implication that isn't harmful, I don't believe that. It seems to me that the nitrogen will do lots of environmental damage when it hits the gulf.

For a bit on that issue, see

Unless someone from the city can convince me otherwise, I view this as a huge failure. I am very disappointed that our city employees and political leaders did not find a better solution than either of these two bad alternatives. I think Lawrence should be better and do better than this.

Clark Coan 5 months, 2 weeks ago

I remember when the City got cited several times by KDHE for dumping pollutants from the City water treatment plant into the river. It took them years to stop doing it. I recall seeing that chalky milky effluent going into the river.

Bob Summers 5 months, 2 weeks ago

It's not like there is anything left to kill in one of the most polluted rivers in the nation.

Daniel Kennamore 5 months, 2 weeks ago

Very true, but we're talking about a nitrogen release into a river...not the Republican party.

Bob Summers 5 months, 2 weeks ago

Very true DK. Congenital Liberals that choose to be called Republican are very toxic.

Good catch!

Kathleen Christian 5 months, 2 weeks ago

Good grief the city throws a fit if someone mows their grass and sweeps the clippings into the street because they don't want them being washed down into the sewers that empty into the river because they say it pollutes the river. they want to dump tons of polluted water in the river and we're suppose to say OKey-dokey? I am so sick of mendacious politics. Eventually they will be requiring the citizens of Lawrence to use their water differently to "prevent" pollution. Just like in recycling our trash. The government puts the burden on the citizens, when all the while they should be forcing the manufacturers to limit their use of packaging or find a way to package where it can be reused either by the consumer or someone else. The City won't collect yard waste unless it is in a "special" bag or a purchased bin. Why would someone want to purchase a product just to throw away of purchase a "special" bin for yard waste? Unless they have a huge disposal income and can afford it. There is no reason under the sun why we can't use our old bins or the roll bins. Boo-hoo the trash collectors might have to actually physically work to pick up a bin instead of just rolling it over to a lift and watch it being dumped. This City has feet of clay - feet of clay.

Eric Kirkendall 5 months, 2 weeks ago

Thank you Rochelle Valverde for this informative story!

--Also posted on Facebook--

Does anyone know if there was ANY public notice or discussion of this with the Lawrence City Commission? Can any of our city commissioners address this - Lisa Larsen, Matthew Herbert, Stuart Boley, Leslie Soden, or Mike Amyx?

Someone emailed me the following information:

As for the nitrate water remediation at the Venture Business Park (VBP) from the former nitrate fertilizer factory, these links are the only ones I know of about City discussions on it. I know of nothing on this dating as far back as March. All three links are from the City Manager's report at City Commission meetings, at the tail end of their meetings, and not open to public comment. That's problematic of itself.

VBP nitrate water report_City Mgr Report_15Aug17 VBP nitrate water update_City Mgr Report_5Sept17 VBP nitrate water update_City Mgr Report_3Oct17

In none of these reports is there any mention of possible dumping the nitrate water into the Kansas River. The City Manager says things like they are "proactively engaged the Kansas Department of Health & Environment in assisting with the matter", and they have "requested additional guidance from KDHE as alternative options for the short-term management of the nitrogenated water are considered".

David Holroyd 5 months, 2 weeks ago

Can't Fritzel just pick up a truck or two of water and water the golf course? And the city as well, Heck Oak Hill cemetery could use some water..

How's that Mausoleum coming along Mr. Markus? And also the fellow commissioners?

Soon it will be Memorial Day again...and the commissioners cannot fix a simple Mausoleum. Free paint at the recycling center! Big Event at KU...working to improve the community! Work release programs...certainly there wouldn't be any conflict with the residents interned. Even a few city workers to show their appreciation for being employed!

David Holroyd 5 months, 2 weeks ago

Dump the water into the river so it goes to Eudora. One eyed Wilbur's sister, Juanita, is not happy! Good thing she is past child bearing age or the baby might be defective thanks to Mr. Markus...I was wondering what all the dirt removal was about on E 15th.....a ditch to the river maybe?

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