State lawmakers ask for better notice after city’s release of nitrogen-contaminated water into Kansas River; 10 million gallons released so far

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

After short notice that the City of Lawrence was authorized to release up to 30 million gallons of nitrogen-contaminated water into the Kansas River, state lawmakers from districts downstream want better notifications going forward.

In a meeting of the Senate Utilities Committee Thursday, Sen. Rob Olson, R-Olathe, told city and Kansas Department of Health and Environment representatives that he wants to make sure the city’s nitrogen-contaminated water releases will not become normal operating practice and that notification will improve. Olson said there needs to be better notification up and down the river when such releases happen.

“Have we learned something here, to maybe improve on it?” Olson said. “And not just because it was Lawrence; there’s other issues that happen on this river.”

The city removes the contaminated water from the groundwater stores under the former Farmland Industries nitrogen fertilizer plant in eastern Lawrence. KDHE authorized the city to release up to 30 million gallons of nitrogen-contaminated water from November to April as part of a makeshift plan to clean up the former plant. Concerns were raised after downstream water district WaterOne — which serves 425,000 people, or about 15 percent of Kansans — was not notified of the authorization until discharges were already taking place.

Prior to the meeting, Olson told the Journal-World his constituents were concerned about the nitrogen. He said that when he was speaking at public forums, it was “like the No. 1 issue for them.” The city and KDHE defended the limited notification because the dilution provided by the river meant the high level of nitrogen in the water collected at Farmland would be diluted to safe levels.

Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, listens as Lawrence, an assistant to the Lawrence City Manager, briefs the Senate Utilities Committee Thursday about the city's decision to dispose of nitrate-contaminated water from the former Farmland Industries fertilizer plant into the Kansas River.

The city is authorized to discharge up to 500,000 gallons of nitrogen-contaminated water into the river every day, and since the authorization was given, it has released about 10 million gallons, according to Tom Stiles, assistant director of the KDHE Bureau of Water. The release must adhere to five other conditions, including river flow requirements and weekly monitoring to make sure contaminants don’t rise above levels that are known to affect drinking water quality. Stiles said what matters is that the impact of the city’s releases has been negligible.

“The most significant thing is, at no point during this entire exercise have the nitrate levels come anywhere near the 10-milligram-per-liter water quality standard,” Stiles said.

In addition, Brandon McGuire, assistant to the city manager, told the committee the city had increased river monitoring at the request of WaterOne. McGuire said the city paid for the addition of a water monitoring gauge at the location of WaterOne’s intake, and monitors samples daily. McGuire said the samples continue to confirm a negligible impact on the Kansas River.

As far as whether the daily discharge of nitrogen-contaminated water from Farmland into the river will become common practice, committee members were reassured that the city has to stop the release by April 1. Stiles said the releases are being done before the weather is warm, meaning the nitrates — which accelerate plant growth and can cause harmful algae blooms — have a dampened effect.

Sen. Julia Lynn, R-Olathe, asked what happens to the contamination over time — whether it goes away as it continues to flow downstream. KDHE Director of Environment John Mitchell said, for the most part, the nitrogen remains in the environment.

“It does break down to some extent, but you’re right; the nitrogen does not go away,” Mitchell said. “The levels of nitrogen coming off this (Farmland) site are slowly reducing, and over time we’re going to approach very low levels, but that will take a considerable length of time for that to happen.”

KDHE is requiring the city to come up with a new plan for dealing with the nitrogen-contaminated water, and soon. According to documents provided to the committee, the city needs to submit a plan that does not involve releases into the river by Feb. 1.

The city took ownership of the former fertilizer plant in 2010 with the plan of using part of the 467-acre site for a new business park, VenturePark. The city paid nothing for the property, but accepted responsibility for cleaning up environmental issues left behind by the bankrupt fertilizer plant. The city received an $8.6 million trust fund that Farmland had set aside for cleanup. Originally, the city thought that trust fund — and the interest it would generate — would be enough to clean up the property. But the city now believes the trust fund won’t be enough, and has acknowledged it overestimated how much interest the fund would earn.

— Journal-World statehouse reporter Peter Hancock contributed to this report.