With ‘big decisions’ ahead, Lawrence City Commission approves spending another $208,000 to study site of Farmland fertilizer plant

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

Lawrence city leaders have approved spending another $208,000 to further study contamination levels at the former Farmland Industries fertilizer plant, but they emphasized that the most difficult decisions about the site’s cleanup were still ahead.

As part of its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission voted unanimously to authorize a second addition to its contract with GHD Services Inc., which the city hired in 2018 to come up with a new remediation plan for the site after the original method proved insufficient.

Mayor Brad Finkeldei said the additional analysis, which brings the total cost of the study to about $582,000, would help the commission find an answer to what will ultimately be a multimillion-dollar question: how to best clean up the contaminants left behind in the soil and groundwater on the site.

“I think obviously gathering this information and doing the cost-benefit analysis is going to be very important, and we’re going to have to make some really big decisions once we have that information back,” Finkeldei said.

The city hired GHD in April 2018 to complete an analysis of the Farmland site and come up with at least five contingency remediation plans, each with a cost-benefit analysis, to deal with the contamination at the site. The study was previously expanded in March 2019 because GHD said it did not have the information it needed about how deeply and broadly the contaminants — namely nitrate, ammonia and nitrite — had spread through the groundwater and soil on the site.

The additional $208,000 approved Tuesday for the study will pay for adding 17 more wells to measure contaminants in the groundwater, which city staff says in the memo will be critical in coming up with a new cleanup plan. Specifically, Engineering Program Manager Andy Ensz told the commission that the additional wells would help determine the volume and concentration of contaminated water, and that GHD would use the sampling results to create a conceptual model for remediation and to inform decisions about which remediation methods should be tested out.

The city took over the Farmland site in 2010 and is legally responsible for the remediation of environmental contaminants. Commissioners agreed that it was the city’s obligation to find a responsible solution to clean up the site, and that the expanded study was necessary. Commissioner Lisa Larsen, a retired environmental geologist, said ensuring the cleanup was done properly would take time.

“These are very complicated projects and they take multiple years to even get to a point to where you might start seeing some progress,” Larsen said. “We’ve just got to move forward with it.”

The new remediation plan must ultimately be approved by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. As the Journal-World reported in August, early findings from GHD’s analysis of the site estimated that cleaning up the nitrogen and other environmental contaminants could cost more than $40 million over the long term. For the next five years, the city plans to spend another $13.5 million toward remediation of the site, according to the memo.

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