Lawrence and Douglas County

Lawrence and Douglas county

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.

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

September 13, 2017


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.


Richard Quinlan 9 months, 1 week ago

Holy colossal screwup Batman.... over 1100 truckloads at city cost , ima guessing $800,000 to a million.

Melinda Henderson 9 months, 1 week ago

Another gift from Corliss that will keep on giving.

David Holroyd 9 months, 1 week ago

Start watering the gofl course at Alvamar Fritzel can hire a truck or two..

Start watering the Lawrence Parks...the city may as well get some benefit from the hiring of trucks.

But I am curious what those truckloads of dirt are doing being hauled on the Farmland Property from farm fields north of 15th?

Michael Kort 9 months, 1 week ago

I have heard that reverse osmosis filtering of polluted ground well water has been used at the old Banister Federal Complex in KCMO on E. 95th St near the Blue River thru the Mo Dept of Natural Resources, to remove solvent carcinogens from the ground water and dump the cleaned up water into the Blue River .

I still would not want to go fishing anywhere down stream from that plant .

Of course, potential filter concentrated nitrogen could be sold of by the truckload to a fertilizer plant or to farmers who want to dilute it with water to make fertilizer and hopefully cut the cost to truck millions of gallons of polluted water way down ? .

I wonder what the part per million or billion this nitrogen is at in the ground water and how many more years the soil will continue to leach it out at into the ground water ?

I believe that such reverse osmosis filtering plants are portable so you could probably set one up next to existing stored water or in the middle of a contamination's well field .

Ken Lassman 9 months, 1 week ago

I know that 10 million gallons sounds like a lot, but it's less than a 4 acre pond that's 8 ft. deep. Couldn't they just line a pond onsite and add some of the same bacteria/algae whatever they use in the water treatment facility to denitrify the water while letting it evaporate to reduce the volume? Maybe it would be cheaper to haul the water to corn fields nearby, but maybe not. Seems like some engineer ought to be able to push the pencil on this to see if they could do it cheaper....I know Ross McKinney used to design 3rd world sewage treatment plants--is there anyone up at KU that followed him in that field since he passed away a while ago?

William D'Armond 9 months, 1 week ago

Everybody seems to missing the point that the City essentially filed imminent domain on this property, roughly 467 acres. How much is that land worth and what is the City going to make off of it again? Add the fact that the City received $8.6 Million for the cleanup, most likely from the EPA's Superfund for cleanup. They estimate $13 million for clean up. So essentially they are going to have the pay $4.4 million to finish the cleanup. My guess is that the farmers that were using this nitrogen rich water for their irrigation were paying CO-OP a nice fee for that water too.

Seems to me like the town is expecting a pity party on something that they are going to make out on over the long haul if they play the property correctly. Once they start leasing the land to businesses in the business park, that will disappear pretty quickly if they can entice the right business into the site. Unfortunately, that is where Lawrence has always dropped the ball. They do not encourage big business to come in, especially if it something that will compete with a local small business owner.

Danny Mantyla 9 months, 1 week ago

I appreciate that our local governments are interested in keeping our environment clean. Hopefully they also realize that the proposed Tyson chicken processing plant 10 miles NW of LFK would likely end in a similar environmental calamity

Bob Smith 9 months, 1 week ago

If we only had 10 million people each take a bucket of water away and pour it out on their yards, there would be no problem.

Greg Cooper 9 months, 1 week ago

Or, realistically, how many homes are there in Lawrence? Surely it wouldn't be super expensive to pump the water into trucks with spray equipment and send them to the homes of those who would like to have it, and finish up with the many "green spaces" this city has mandated to itself. Heck, the city found a way to get rid of excess wood chips by calling it mulch, so nitrogen-rich, plant-friendly water like this should be a breeze to find homes for.

Ken Lassman 9 months ago

The main expense is hauling the water, which you'd have to do with your plan, too. Their plan to haul it to corn fields would probably be cheaper; it sounds like they are hauling it north of the river, which makes me wonder if they could find some closer fields to put it onto, saving the hauling costs some.

David Holroyd 9 months, 1 week ago

Mr Cooper I am back. Again, the golf courses could be watered and the CEMETERY...the one with the Mausoleum..and then there are the parks and of course that pond at Fritzels will need some water if there is no rain.

Still , what is the city digging and moving all that dirt from north of 15th onto former Farmland Property?

Mr. Lassman,,,you may be onto something,,,just move the water to the cornfields that the dirt is being removed from.

I wonder if the city ;has been mucking around on the Venture park property and have created a problem that didn't exist before.

After all,,,look at the leadership!

Inquiring minds want to know.

Greg Cooper 9 months ago

Didn't read your original post. Seems we agree that the city could be a bit more aggressive in thinking outside the box. Thanks.

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