Lawrence City Commission approves study to identify better cleanup methods for contaminated Farmland site

photo by: Nick Krug

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

Consultants will soon undertake a study to come up with a new strategy for the city’s cleanup of the former Farmland fertilizer plant.

At its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission voted unanimously to approve a more than $200,000 contract with a consulting firm, GHD Inc.

GHD will complete an analysis of the city-owned Farmland site, conduct community input meetings and come up with a new plan to deal with the nitrogen-contaminated water at the site. The plan will have at least five contingencies, each with a cost-benefit analysis, in case one or more methods become infeasible.

“Last fall you had two alternatives; neither were good,” GHD project engineer David Hempleman told the commission. “What we are trying to do for you is come up with five alternatives, each of which on any given day would work.”

The city’s current remediation method of distributing the nitrogen-contaminated water to farmers for use as fertilizer became insufficient last year. The city originally considered a plan to pay to truck the millions of gallons of surplus water to additional farmers, but the Kansas Department of Health and Environment subsequently authorized the city to release the water into the Kansas River under certain conditions.

Vice Mayor Lisa Larsen, a retired environmental geologist, said the consultant-led study is needed and extremely typical in the environmental field. Larsen said that even though she is not happy with some of the costs in the consultant contract, she thinks it is reasonable to move forward.

“It is very much needed, I think, on this project,” Larsen said. “Now the extent of how it’s going to be conducted, that can always be debated. But I think going forward with this is extremely important for how we’re going to find a way to spend that money using the best technologies available today.”

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 plant. At that time, the city received an approximately $8.5 million trust fund that Farmland had set aside for cleanup, which city staff have said now contains about $5 million.

Larsen, as well as Commissioner Matthew Herbert, both questioned the cost spelled out in the contract for the consultants to conduct four stakeholder meetings with the community. Herbert pointed out that the cost, about $27,000, was approximately 12 percent of the total contract cost, originally set at $226,000.

Larsen said that though she thinks it’s important for the consultants to take part in the community meetings, that the hours and cost estimated went overboard. Ultimately, the commission directed city staff to remove the “stakeholder engagement” provision from the contract and bring a revision of that provision back to the commission at a later date. Larsen was also concerned about a 10 percent contingency outlined in the contract and clarified that any contingencies would have to be reviewed and approved.

As part of the meeting, city staff provided the commission an update on the releases of nitrogen-contaminated water into the river, which ceased April 1. Project Engineer Sarah Graves said that the city discharged a total of 36.4 million gallons of nitrogen-contaminated water into the Kansas River and that all KDHE requirements regarding monitoring and contaminant limits were met.

The study was not included in the city’s 2018 budget, although a $1 million project to cap ponds on the Farmland site was budgeted, according to a city staff memo to the commission. That project will be postponed and part of the money that would have gone toward it will instead be used to pay for the study, according to the memo.