City must pay to truck 10 million gallons of nitrogen-contaminated water from Farmland site

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

Even with the pumping system for collecting nitrogen-contaminated water at the former Farmland fertilizer plant temporarily shut off, the city will still have 10 million gallons of excess water to get rid of.

Distributing that quantity of water — enough to fill 15 Olympic-sized swimming pools — is a major operation. Though city officials don’t have an estimate at this time for how much it will cost the city to transport and distribute the water via truck, it will likely be a significant amount.

“Obviously, we don’t think it’s a cheap operation,” said Director of Utilities Dave Wagner. “Ten million gallons and trucking is not going to be inexpensive, by at least my standards, but we’ll try to do it as effectively as we can and minimize it.”

The city is accepting bids for the work, which will include testing the water, transporting it by truck and arranging with area farmers to apply it to their land, according to the request for proposal.

The city has been using a pipeline that runs from the site to the other side of the Kansas River to distribute millions of gallons of the nitrogen-contaminated water to farmers north of Lawrence, where it can be added to fields as fertilizer. However, water storage capacity at the site became a problem earlier this year after improvements to the pumping system yielded increased water collection at the same time that farmers were using less water from the pipe.

The city took ownership of the former Farmland Industries fertilizer plant in 2010 with the plan of using part of the 467-acre site for its new business park. The city paid nothing for the property and received an $8.6 million trust fund to pay for the cleanup. The city also accepted full responsibility, via a contract with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, for remediating decades of nitrogen fertilizer spills that contaminated the groundwater.

With storage near capacity, the city recently met with KDHE officials to discuss its contract and see what could be done. KDHE authorized the city to turn off its pumping system for at least six months and increase testing to make sure nitrogen water doesn’t leave the property.

Nitrate, a compound found in fertilizer, often contaminates drinking water in agricultural areas, and infants who drink water too high in nitrates can become seriously ill and even die, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. For sites with contaminated groundwater, remediation is primarily concerned with ensuring domestic and public water supplies for drinking water are not contaminated, according to KDHE.

Wagner said city staff already tested wells at the edge of the property quarterly to ensure the nitrogen water was contained within the site, and that testing will now increase to monthly. He said the increased monitoring will make sure the nitrogen is safely contained when the pumps are temporarily shut off.

“A hiatus on that, I don’t think anybody anticipates that there will be a problem, but the increased testing will help us confirm that,” Wagner said. “It’s due diligence on making sure it’s not getting away from us.”

On top of the water woes, the city found that the trust it was left to cover the costs of remediating the contamination at the site is not growing nearly at the rate projected.

When the city took over the property, the cleanup was projected to cost at least $13 million. The city’s plan was to mitigate the costs with the land sales from what would come to be Lawrence VenturePark, savings from using city crews instead of contractors to run the water system, and interest generated from the trust fund. But it has not worked out that way.

City Manager Tom Markus told the commission in August that interest projections for the fund were extremely optimistic and said that in the time period where the trust was supposed to generate $1.3 million in interest, it generated only $150,000.

Turning off the pumps and using trucks to distribute the excess 10 million gallons is a short-term solution that will be in place until early next year. The city is currently developing a request for proposals for consultant services to assess the program and identify the most sustainable remediation plan, according to a city memo. That could include onsite water treatment, construction of distribution infrastructure to directly serve additional farms and/or an underground containment well.

Wagner said some plans work better under different conditions and predicting future conditions is difficult. He said the new plan will address the issue long-term and will likely include multiple solutions.

“So we’ll just have to put a pencil to what those long-term costs are, do a present worth analysis and figure out the cheapest, best and most environmentally sound solution to cover some of the unknowns that we have related to the remediation,” Wagner said.

The bids for the trucking and application contract for the nitrogen water are due Friday and are expected to go before the commission next month.