Rebirth at former Farmland Industries site anticipated to be soon

Closed since 2001, the former Farmland Industries boiler house complex and the surrounding land show the ravages of nearly 50 years of use.

Matt Bond is the city engineer responsible for overseeing the cleanup of the former Farmland Industries site. Bond said the city is currently taking bids for the cleanup.

Nitrogen seeps to the top of certain patches of land on the former Farmland site. Much of the cleanup effort will involve taking care of environmental issues such as the nitrogen that remains from past spills.

It wasn’t always an eyesore.

Today, that’s hard to believe. The 467-acre former Farmland Industries fertilizer plant sits on the eastern edge of Lawrence with — it seems — no other purpose but to catch blowing trash in its long line of chain-link fences.

As thousands of motorists who drive by the plant on Kansas Highway 10 each day can attest, this industrial relic, which closed in 2001, hasn’t faded away as much as it has rusted into ruin.

But once, it was 1952.

The Jayhawks had won the national championship. Lawrence’s industrial scene was buzzing with a flour mill, a pork and bean factory, bottling companies and other enterprises that seem about as un-Lawrence as purple on a Saturday.

And in that year Kansas City, Mo.-based Farmland Industries began construction of a fertilizer plant east of Lawrence.

By 1954 it had opened, and in the decades that followed there always were debates about how many pollutants the plant injected into the air, concerns about the massive amounts of natural gas used at the facility, and questions about what all that fertilizer had done to the soil and groundwater.

But one thing almost everyone agreed upon was that the plant was an economic engine. Most years it employed 250 people or more, and was among the top taxpayers in Douglas County.

For some, it was even more than that. To men like Dick Lind, the plant was — dare he say it — a fine welcome sign to Lawrence.

“I remember how it looked all lit up at night,” said Lind, who served as plant manager of the facility from about 1979 to its closing. “It was a landmark for east Lawrence. You knew you were coming into a city.”

• • •

The giant hot dog must go. Matt Bond is certain of that.

Bond is the city engineer responsible for overseeing the cleanup of the nearly 500-acre piece of property. He has that job because the city acquired — not purchased, the city manager will remind anyone — the property from Farmland’s bankruptcy trust in September. The city paid nothing for the property and received an $8.6 million trust fund as part of its plan to turn the property into a new business park. But the city also assumed all responsibility for cleaning up decades of nitrogen fertilizer spills that have contaminated the groundwater.

At the moment, that’s not what is on Bond’s mind. The giant hot dog is. You’ve seen it. It is a long steel tank that sits along the front edge of the property next to K-10. The tank has turned brown and bubbled like a stuck weenie over a Boy Scout fire. The city manager has dubbed the tank the giant hot dog, and not because he’s a fan.

Bond is happy to report that a deal has been struck to have the tank moved off the property by early spring. He promises it will be just the beginning.

The city last week received 15 proposals from companies as far away as Michigan to tear down buildings, haul off debris and generally clean the place up. Bond is reviewing the bids — detailed documents stacked as high as a two-wheeled dolly — to recommend the best deal to city commissioners.

He’s optimistic a good deal will be found. In addition to hauling off all the trash, the companies will get to keep an estimated 5,000 tons of metal — everything from pipes to buildings — that can be sold for salvage.

“What I have to make sure of is that we don’t get a contractor that takes all the salvageable material and leaves all the junk,” Bond said. “We’re not going to let that happen.”

Bond expects a contractor to be in place by January, and for much of the demolition to be done by late 2011. The city is planning to leave five buildings on the property to use for storage, although the old office building along K-10 will be torn down, as will pretty much everything else on the southern end of the property that can be seen from the highway.

“It is going to look a lot different,” Bond said. “I’m telling everybody that when we’re done, it won’t look like the set of a ‘Mad Max’ movie anymore.”

• • •

From up here, Lawrence’s newest acquisition actually looks pretty.

The northwest corner of the property is high ground, and it provides a nice view of the tops of Kaw Valley trees that are about to turn. Here, the property looks just like any other eastern Kansas hay field, complete with a patch of timber that had about a dozen wild turkeys until a sudden noise spooked them.

But turn your gaze east just a bit, and you’re looking at the dirtiest part of this site, at least from an environmental standpoint. The ground is nearly bare of vegetation, and a white film seeps to the surface. It is nitrogen fertilizer. It has been hanging around for decades.

The area once was home to a giant lagoon that held water used in the fertilizer production process. The water was laced with nitrogen fertilizer, and in time it seeped through whatever liner was in place in the bottom of the lagoon.

Now, there is a bubble of contaminated groundwater beneath the fertilizer site, and the city’s chore for at least the next 20 years will be to ensure the bubble doesn’t spread to adjacent properties.

The city will attempt to control the groundwater the same way Farmland Industries had for many years. Groundwater wells are strategically placed around the property. They pump the groundwater into one of three holding areas — a 5.5 million gallon tank, a 3 million gallon tank or a 16 million gallon lagoon. From there, the city will ship the water through a long-existing pipeline that crosses the Kansas River into rural North Lawrence. Several area farmers get free access to the fertilizer-enriched water to put on their fields.

Making sure that system continues to work is a big part of what the city has signed up to do at this site. But it is not the only thing. Filling old lagoons and rehabilitating some of the “hot” soil also must be done.

Those parts of the projects had created question marks for years about how much it would cost to complete those tasks. Some question marks remain. The city received $8.6 million for environmental cleanup work, but the Kansas Department of Health and Environment estimates it will take more than $10 million to do the job.

But city leaders believe they can do it more cheaply. Where KDHE assumed hired contractors would do some of the work, the city plans to use city crews. Plus, the city hopes to generate revenue by selling clean pieces of property to potential new business tenants. Proceeds from those sales could be used to help pay for the cleanup and the new infrastructure that will have to be built on the property.

So, yes, the city has a plan. But now the biggest question may be: what surprises may be waiting around the corner? The property has been poked and prodded for years by environmental engineers to find if something more dangerous than nitrogen fertilizer lurks beneath the surface.

Bond has been looking for it too. He bites his tongue when he starts to say the project is past the point of major surprises. That’s the type of temptation that awakens fate. Instead, he says he hasn’t seen anything that makes him think the city is in over its head.

“We’re not dealing with Love Canal here,” Bond said. “We’re really not.”

But that’s not to say there won’t be twists and turns. In Bond, the city may have found the right man to roll with them.

“My theory is that if you always are going to view the glass half-empty,” Bond said, “you’re not going to get very far in life.”

• • •

$100 million. As you walk around the Farmland property — the railroad tracks covered by weeds, the concrete piers that have crumbled, the leaky buildings that you could hold a football scrimmage in — that number bounces around your head.

That’s how much Lind — the former plant manager — estimates Farmland invested into the plant’s equipment and building over the years.

Now, when you walk into the control room — the place where supervisors oversaw the production of more than 1 million pounds of different fertilizer types per year — the walls are covered in graffiti. A printer jammed with paper still sits along a wall. Switches that now control nothing tempt visitors to push them.

“I haven’t been back there for quite a while,” Lind says of the plant. “Some things you just want to remember them the way they were.”

Allen Rogers has not had that luxury. He worked at the plant for 31 years, serving as its chief chemist and environmental coordinator. When the plant shut down, he stayed on with the bankruptcy trust to show it the ins and outs of the property. He’s on a short-term contract with the city to do the same for it.

He works in the same laboratory building he did all those years. Although he doesn’t say much, he does acknowledge it hasn’t been fun to watch the place fall down around him.

“It has been sad,” Rogers said. “No doubt about that. It was a good job for a lot of people. This place fed a lot of people for a lot of years.”

The big bet in Lawrence City Hall is that someday it will once again.