Neighbors of the New Century AirCenter, now worried about an anhydrous ammonia spill, have flooded the Johnson County Commission with objections to a cold storage plant that was approved almost two months ago.
Fears of a potentially deadly ammonia leak at the future Lineage Logistics plant have brought residents out to organize against the development, with hundreds asking permission to be included in a lawsuit asking the county to reverse its approval.
The county commission in July overrode objections by a few nearby neighbors to the cold storage facility. Back then, the chief concerns were screening, lighting, noise and water drainage.
But opponents took a different turn three weeks ago by spotlighting the dangers of anhydrous ammonia in a lawsuit filed in Johnson County District Court. Four plaintiffs asked for a reversal of the commission’s approval. Anhydrous ammonia is commonly used in industrial refrigeration but can be lethal if it escapes into the atmosphere.
Since then, the opposition movement has been gathering steam. Neighbors have shown up at to speak at every county commission meeting since the approval, lately armed with videos of ammonia spills. They have created a Facebook page “Stop the project at New Century AirCenter.” There are regular meetings and as of Monday, 840 people have asked to join the lawsuit, said Mike Jensen, the lead plaintiff and most vocal opponent.
County commissioners have said they are assured Lineage will manage the ammonia safely, and that the chemical is already being used safely in many other facilities throughout the metro area.
But the neighbors who recently attended the commission meeting watched video of workers fleeing an ammonia spill were not so sure.
“We will wonder as the fog rolls down the lake in the morning if it’s God’s way of telling us that the seasons are changing or an accident at Lineage Logistics,” said Suzanne Townley of Gardner Lake. “Something that has been so calming and so beautiful for so many years will now contain the fear that we need to evacuate.”
Lineage Logistics intends to build a 400,000-square-foot cold storage facility on about 40 acres at 159th Street and New Century Parkway. The county commission has voted its intent to issue a 50-percent tax abatement for 10 years on the project, which is expected to cost about $81 million.
Jensen, whose property abuts the proposed facility, has tangled with the county before on development at the airport. He said his property was damaged by runoff from the former Kimberly Clark plant and filed an unsuccessful lawsuit in 2011 to that effect.
This time Jensen and surrounding property owners tried to use a protest petition to object to the Lineage development, but it was declared invalid. Thirteen neighbors had signed that petition.
But since ammonia has taken center stage, interest has been considerably higher. The plant is not far from the county sheriff’s office, an adult detention center and homes around Gardner Lake. Opponents worry that an ammonia spill could knock out first responders and endanger inmates at the center. They also noted a part of Lenexa’s Sunflower Elementary School grounds lie within a potential five-mile evacuation zone.
County officials have been constrained in their responses because of the pending lawsuit. County Sheriff Calvin Hayden said the sheriff’s office has emergency plans in place because a number of toxic chemicals are already in use at the industrial airport and are being transported on the nearby railroad tracks.
There’s special ventilation at the jail, which has 534 inmates, and the first responders have breathing apparatus in case of a chemical spill, Hayden said. “Public safety is what we do. We are making sure the inmates are safe,” he said.
Commission Chairman Ed Eilert said he couldn’t comment on lawsuit issues, but pointed out that ammonia has been used safely in other businesses in the county.
Officials at Lineage sent a formal response to questions about safety. “Safety is of paramount importance to us at Lineage Logistics. We continuously review our safety and compliance procedures, and we are committed to remaining engaged with evolving regulations and best practices to ensure we are upholding the highest standards in the industry.”
Because the new plant will handle more than 10,000 pounds of ammonia, it is required to stick to detailed safety management plans to comply with the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration and the Environmental Protection agency, the response said.
The company has an internal safety inspection program, and is also subject to unannounced inspections by federal and state agencies, it continued.
A company handout offered to visitors at the county commission said all systems are inspected daily and that the facility will be equipped with ammonia sensors to automatically shut down and contain the gas.
However neighbors have not been satisfied with assurances that ammonia is easily detectable by smell and that it is lighter than air and will dissipate upwards if spilled. Jensen pointed out a 2010 ammonia leak at the Millard Refrigeration plant in Theodore, Ala., in which more than 130 were sickened and seven were hospitalized. Millard was later acquired by Lineage.
Jensen suspected that business would continue as usual, under a different name now that Lineage owns Millard. Jensen and others said they would prefer regular government inspections for leaks. As it is, federal and state agencies step in only after an incident, he said.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment does not inspect refrigeration plants for ammonia leaks.
Jensen said neighbors’ options are limited in regards to stopping a project that has already been approved by the commission.
“We will continue to encourage the county commission to do the right thing,” he said.
“Lineage Logistics didn’t elect them. When you elect somebody there’s an agreement they will protect us, protect our property values, protect our safety. None of us voted for the commissioners to put extremely hazardous materials next to us.”