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 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.