Editorial: Farmland deal still going sour

What the city of Lawrence wouldn’t give to go back in time and renegotiate the terms of taking over the former Farmland Industries fertilizer plant. Never has something billed as free been so expensive.

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 agreed to accept responsibility for cleaning up environmental issues left behind by the bankrupt fertilizer plant. The city would get an $8.6 million trust fund that Farmland had set aside for cleanup.

Problem is, cleanup is expected to exceed $13.6 million and the city’s plan to use interest on the trust fund to make up the difference isn’t exactly working out.

Not only did the city vastly overestimate the interest it would receive on investing the $8.6 million, but also the city recently discovered that more than half of the trust fund has been sitting in a noninterest-bearing account for the past couple of years, drawing no interest.

The original plan for the cleanup of the property involved pumping groundwater through an existing pipeline system to North Lawrence, where the fertilizer-contaminated water could be spread on farm fields.

But City Manager Tom Markus, who inherited the Farmland mess when he was hired in 2016, said changes in the land and farming have made it impractical to use the pipeline system.

“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.”

Now comes word that the city will begin releasing the nitrogen-contaminated water from the fertilizer plant into the Kansas River. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment has authorized the release over the next several months, saying the impacts should be minimal.

The city is authorized to release up to 30 million gallons of nitrogen-contaminated water from now until April 1. No more than 500,000 gallons of nitrogen water can be released per day.

Markus said releasing the water into the river is significantly less expensive and less dangerous than trying to truck it off site. The KDHE agreed.

“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,” said Tom Stiles, assistant director of the KDHE Bureau of Water. “We felt like that might represent a greater safety and environmental impact than authorizing this discharge through the existing permit under certain conditions.”

Let’s hope Stiles and Markus are right, and that there are no harmful impacts from the release.

Meanwhile, it has been three years since VenturePark opened and the park is still seeking its first tenant. Some deal Farmland Industries has turned out to be for the city.