Wistful reminders of what might have been dot the landscape of Mike and Pam Jensen’s 30-acre property near the New Century AirCenter. On a grassy rise in the middle was where their son and daughter-in-law were married. Nearby, upended boats dot the shoreline of the pond church and service groups used, at Jensen’s invitation, for fishing and fun nights out.
Dreaming of country retreat and a house full of grandkids, the Jensens scraped out brush and trash, deepened the pond and were just to the point of building on the very site where their son was married.
But those dreams are mostly dead now. The once 6-to-12-foot-deep pond is heavily silted and green with algae — a problem the Jensens blame on lax county oversight of industry at their neighbor, the airport.
Now the county has approved a new cold storage plant at the airport that will use potentially deadly anhydrous ammonia as its refrigerant, and Mike Jensen says he’s had enough.
“I disagree vehemently with what they’ve done. I’m ready to lay down in front of a bulldozer if it comes to that,” Jensen said.
So far it hasn’t come to that. But Jensen has already proved he’s not going away quietly. Over the summer he’s put out the word to anybody who will listen. He and opponents have come to county commission meetings every week since the commission’s approval of the Lineage Logistics cold storage facility in July. They want the commission to reverse its OK of a 10-year, 50 percent tax abatement for the $81 million facility that includes about 400,000 square feet.
The fear of an anhydrous ammonia spill is at the top of their list of concerns. And they’ve been buoyed by recent actions in Leavenworth County. Ammonia leakage was high on the list of reasons for large-scale community opposition to the Tyson Foods plant proposed for Tonganoxie. The county commission there reversed its support and Tyson has since put plans on hold. Now New Century neighbors are waiting to see if the Johnson County Commission will do the same.
But there have been no indications so far that might happen. Jensen also has filed a lawsuit, so county officials have not commented when residents come to call. Commission Chairman Ed Eilert has said repeatedly that anhydrous ammonia is a common refrigerant already in use in many businesses in the county, and he’s pointed out that the ammonia is not involved in production or other uses that could increase exposure outside of the building.
The difference between Tonganoxie and the Johnson County plan is that Leavenworth County officials had not yet approved the chicken plant. Johnson County has already signed off on the design and the intent to give a tax abatement, so stopping the Lineage plant would require a reversal.
The Lineage Logistics issue began quietly last year, when county officials learned the company would be willing to locate at New Century. Developing the industrial airport, near Gardner, has been a priority for the county, but difficult because the county maintains ownership of the land and leases it back.
Since many of the larger corporations prefer to own their land, most of the leasing has been done by smaller companies. The exceptions have been Unilever and Kimberly Clark. Kimberly Clark’s former plant is now occupied by Amazon.com.
Jensen, backed up by nearby neighbors, was on hand to object when the commission first considered the tax abatement deal. He had lost a previous lawsuit on technical issues against the county for water runoff damage he claimed originated with Kimberly Clark. He brought some of those same complaints before the board on Lineage, which would be located next to the old Kimberly Clark site immediately bordering his property.
Many in his immediate neighborhood also had issues with the lights and sounds of Kimberly Clark. But opposition went beyond the immediate neighborhood after Jensen filed his next lawsuit, spotlighting the dangers of anhydrous ammonia.
Lineage plans to use 40,000 pounds of ammonia in its enclosed cooling system. Anhydrous ammonia has become more popular as an industrial refrigerant as the use of chlorofluorocarbons, which harm the Earth’s ozone layer, are being phased out.
Anhydrous ammonia is also commonly used as a fertilizer on farms. Industry advocates say it has a natural safety feature in its obnoxious smell and that since it is lighter than air, it will dissipate up into the atmosphere.
But Jensen and neighbors aren’t so sure about that. Anhydrous means “without water,” and the deadly ammonia gas expands quickly and tends to seek water before dissipating. That’s of particular concern for anyone with a pond or lake nearby, he said.
Neighbor after neighbor has expressed concern about the potential risk of an ammonia leak. Some have worried about response time and evacuation plans for residents and people in the county sheriff’s adult detention center nearby. Others say the county didn’t do enough vetting about ammonia hazards before approving the project.
More than 800 have asked to be included as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, and Jensen believes around 300 of those may have standing. Meanwhile, he and his supporters have started a new website, Concerned Citizens for Responsible Government, or http://cc4rg.com/, with links to stories and videos of ammonia spills and ammonia safety hazards.
The county has tried to reassure them that it already has protocols in place if there is a chemical accident at the airport. Although the outdoor sirens are for tornado warnings, the county fire district, headquartered at the airport, would be first on the scene to get people out of the way of any impending plume, said Rob Kirk, chief of Fire District No. 1.
Fire and sheriff’s officials would assess the danger, and if necessary, go door to door to evacuate the area, Kirk said. A serious enough spill also could trigger an emergency alert system, meaning automatic calls would go out to people in the area.
The county fire district doesn’t have a hazmat unit, so fire departments in Olathe and Overland Park would be summoned, he said. Response time for hazmat crews would be a little over 13 minutes for Olathe and 19 minutes for Overland Park. Those are considered to be good, reasonable response times, he said.
The sheriff’s office also has emergency plans in place for the detention center, a spokesman said, but the details aren’t public because of security concerns.
County officials acknowledged that they didn’t examine the details of Lineage’s ammonia handling system or its safety record during the planning process because the chemical is within the facility’s enclosed handling system.
“Lineage does not manufacture, process or store anhydrous ammonia as part of their business operations. If they did, we would certainly have inquired and evaluated it,” a written response from the county manager’s office said. “The anhydrous ammonia is a component in their refrigeration system and subject to safety requirements. In our planning and zoning process, we would not necessarily inquire about the refrigerant, but we would require that they comply with state and federal requirements for the refrigerant.”
Lineage Logistics maintains that it is committed to safety and abides by all state and federal requirements.
“Lineage is committed to upholding the highest safety and compliance standards in the industry,” the company said in a written response to questions from The Star.
The company advertises a robust internal safety system in place to assure compliance with all laws. The facility will be subject to regular in-house inspections as well as announced and unannounced inspections by federal agencies, the response said.
The company has its own new website on the issue, http://lineagelogistics.com/new-century, noting that Kansas has the third largest number of facilities in the country handling 10,000 or more pounds of the refrigerant. There are 12 in Johnson County, including three at the New Century AirCenter, it says.
But nearby residents remain uneasy about whether the federal government is well-staffed enough to do as many inspections as may be necessary, and they’re frustrated that all their comments have not resulted in a reversal.
“I get the concept of not in my backyard,” Olathe resident Cathy Fritz at a recent commission meeting said. “That’s not what this is. This is safety. It would be so helpful if you would look like you’re listening — just look like it. Look like it matters to you what we think.”
Sharon Carrel, who lives just down the road from the Jensens, said she was mainly concerned about sight lines and the height of the screening berms when the project first came up. Ammonia didn’t enter her mind until later.
“We have a right to know what is in the air we breathe and the dangerous chemicals in our backyard,” she said.
Lineage officials recently asked to meet with Jensen and a few neighbors, but Jensen has rejected that idea, saying the meeting should have happened long ago. County commissioners had asked Lineage to sit down with residents when they approved the plan in July.
Meanwhile Jensens’ land remains in limbo. The property was a mess when he bought it in 2007 and he spent thousands excavating the pond and clearing out brush and trash before the first gulley washers brought silt back in and flooded parts of it.
Although Jensen lives in Olathe, friends and groups were and still are using the land, he said.
It’s for sale, but Jensen said that’s mostly to establish value for the lawsuit.
“Who would want it, with what it’s embroiled in right now?” he said.
The Jensens always expected there would be development on the airport land, he said, but they expected “light industrial” development and adherence to county zoning laws without the deviations that were given to Lineage.
“I’m a little naïve,” he said. “I just believed people are going to do the right thing. It’s Johnson County, for Pete’s sake.”