The City of Lawrence relied on authority of state regulators to begin dumping into the Kansas River as much as 20 million gallons of nitrogen-tainted water collected at the site of a defunct Farmland Industries plant, state and city officials said Thursday.
An administrator with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment told a Senate committee the emergency discharge of contaminated groundwater drawn from a fertilizer plant site was preferable to allowing the water to be hauled to farm fields by truck.
“The prospect of over 3,000 trucks moving water along the K-10 corridor was problematic from a logistical and environmental position and presented threats to the integrity of public safety and infrastructure,” said John Mitchell, director of environment at KDHE.
So far, the City of Lawrence estimated 10 million gallons had been released into the river since mid-November. The city chose to limit the discharge to 20 million gallons held in retention ponds, which were in jeopardy of overflowing if persistent rains occurred. The plan is to continue to hold in storage tanks the 10 million gallons with the highest levels of nitrogen.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says nitrates in drinking water can be harmful to people and can cause algae blooms that undermine water habitat.
Mitchell said the state agency allowed controlled releases to occur from October 2017 to April. Maximum daily discharge was set at 500,000 gallons and testing to measure extent of the river’s nitrogen surge was ordered, he said.
KDHE reported average nitrate concentration of released water was 342 milligrams per liter, and average ammonia concentration was 125 milligrams per liter. However, City of Lawrence documents show water destined for release had a nitrate concentration of 594 milligrams per liter and an ammonia concentration of 278 milligrams per liter.
KDHE predicted nitrate levels in the river would rise by 1.5 milligrams per liter, but stay below the quality standard for surface water of 10 milligrams per liter. In November, sensors showed downstream nitrate concentration averaged 1 milligram per liter.
“The impacts to the river and the downstream users from the release have been negligible,” said Tom Stiles, the assistant director of the water bureau at KDHE. “Controlled release of water from the ponds accompanied by a dry winder has re-established storage capacity at the Farmland site.”
Sen. Rob Olson, an Olathe Republican and chairman of the Senate Utilities Committee, said concern was expressed in Johnson County about flushing so much nitrogen-tainted water into the Kansas River. He said he was satisfied with KDHE’s assessment that influence on overall health of the river was not significant.
“I think it’s important to get this information out to our constituents,” Olson said.
The Farmland plant began operation in the 1950s and closed in 2001. As part of a remediation program, a trench was constructed on the property east of Lawrence to collect water heavy with ammonia and nitrate. The stored water has been piped to agriculture land nearby, but demand declined and the storage facilities reached capacity at 30 million gallons of water.
The state of Kansas owned the 460-acre Farmland property until 2010, when it was given to the City of Lawrence for use as a business park.
Brandon McGuire, assistant to the city manager of Lawrence, said about 10 million gallons of nitrogen-saturated water was collected annually. In September 2017, he said, the city asked KDHE to allow 19 million gallons to be carried by truck for deposit on area land as fertilizer. One estimate of the cost of trucking the water came in at $400,000.
In the alternative, he said, KDHE recommended a one-time discharge into the Kaw.
“KDHE indicated that this does not establish a precedent for disposal of future remediation water from the site,” McGuire said, “but is preferable to trucking water for agricultural application.”