A remnant of an old energy plant lies underground in the south part of Abilene that soon will be unearthed to help the environment.
Today natural gas is used for heating, cooling and other energy, but in Abilene’s early years after the Civil War manufactured gas plants helped Abilene residents and citizens across the United States light their homes and towns.
Later on, with modern advancements and the move to natural gas, most plants were left behind and buried. Kansas Gas Service is one of the companies responsible for helping remediate the left-behind plants and keep the environment healthy.
During an Abilene City Commission study session Aug. 2, representatives from Kansas Gas Service presented their plans and on Aug. 26 held a virtual town hall for locals to ask their questions.
With the planned construction starting at the end of September, the following is a break down about Manufactured Gas Plants and the plans for Abilene’s old plant on the corner of Southwest Second and South Mulberry streets.
In hopes of keeping groundwater sources uncompromised, Kansas Department of Health and Environment started testing and assessing Kansas’ manufactured gas plant locations to understand if contamination is possible in the future. The assessments came back with an understanding that it could happen, so the government created plans to remove the manufactured gas plants’ tanks and fill the areas.
While the state started the remedial efforts, companies like Kansas Gas Service have taken over the removal projects. Kansas Gas Service representatives presented their betterment plan for Abilene’s old gas plant during the Aug. 2 commissioner study session.
The plan focuses on the removal of items found 11 feet underneath the surface.
After the materials are removed the company plans to treat the area and backfill with a minimum 1-foot clean fill over the treated area. Kansas Gas Service suggests the area be sectioned into a gravel parking lot.
While the city plans to help Kansas Gas Services with the rehabilitation project, they will only facilitate items like traffic management and right-of-way use.
“We are strictly facilitating, helping them facilitate the remediation project,” City Manager Ron Marsh said. “Anything that happens is strictly on them.”
The city did reach out to see if the company would be able to create a website where people can learn more about their work.
With construction planned to begin at the end of this month, residents can contact Kansas Gas Services with any questions at 785-380-2811 or email questions to info@Abilene-KGS.com
Kansas Gas Service PR Manager Dawn Tripp helped clarify some details regarding their upcoming construction plan for Abilene’s manufactured gas plant.
While Kansas Gas Service and their contractors, Burns & McDonnel, will be the main leads over the project, Kansas Department of Health and Environment did approve all actions made in their construction plans.
“All of our studies have been performed under the oversight of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment,” Tripp said. “So, they review, evaluate and approve all of our action plans and reports.”
To help understand the impact locals will face during the project, Tripp broke down the air quality testing, groundwater and general disruption.
“We’ll be testing and assessing the air quality, we have certain controls that we’ll be able to apply that will address any odors and emissions,” Tripp said.
“Daily samples will be collected and sent to a laboratory for analysis that follows EPA (Environment Protection Agency) procedures.”
In the case of groundwater, Kansas Department of Health and Environment did worry about contamination with MGP tanks, the removal process shows to not to compromise the area’s groundwater.
“Because MGP residues found in soil and groundwater are below ground surface, there is limited potential for people living nearby to come in contact with residues,” Tripp said.
“While there were residues found at this site, the levels would not be considered a health risk,” Tripp continued.
In general disturbances, locals should treat the area like normal construction.
“Our contractors (Burns & McDonnel) will use construction equipment and may occasionally close streets around the property,” Tripp said. “It may at times be noisy and may cause a tar-like smell. However, we are working hard to minimize this work’s impact on the surrounding neighborhood and will work to make the project as safe as possible.”
Tripp wanted to speak directly to Abilene residents about Kansas Gas Service upcoming work.
“We are committed to providing safe, clean and reliable natural gas service to our customers and all the communities that we serve. As a responsible corporate citizen, we’re working to help maintain a healthy environment for our communities and the residents who live in service territories. So, we do want to express our openness to hearing from the residents in Abilene.”
Manufactured gas history
According to a report from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment from 2008, manufactured gas plants became a trend with residents seeing the resource more suitable than previous forms of energy, like fire.
“Manufactured gas, produced in factories called gas works, was considered one of the most civilizing improvements a frontier city could make,” researcher Aspen Junge said.
According to the Kansas Daily Tribune on July 1, 1869: “There is nothing that will contribute so much to beautify our city and make life pleasant and agreeable, as gas light. It is a steady, handy and constant light and not near so wearing to the eyes as candle or oil light.”
The big push didn’t come until after the Civil War, when Kansas started to experience a huge growth in population.
Towns would start rivalries over who would gain the new advancement. “Topeka and Leavenworth were both constructing gas works, so of course Lawrence had to do the same,” Junge said.
Companies building the plants would use advertising to create interest, which turned into a national trend across the United States. “Junction City awarded its manufactured gas enterprise to J.J. Donelson, who promised to build a plant if enough citizens pledged to use gas,” Junge said.
“Advertisements like this were placed in the Junction City Union. Construction began in May 1913 and customers were using gas stoves by August,” Junge continued.
The trend of gas works popping up in different towns in Kansas was separated into four time periods:
• First boom — 1868 to 1871; Leavenworth, Topeka, Lawrence and Fort Scott
• Second boom — 1880 to 1890; 13 more plants in the eastern and southeastern regions
• Third boom — 1908; 12 more plants.
A dip in demand followed: “Prices for natural gas rose to the point where manufactured gas could again compete.”
• Final boom: 1912 and 1913; Abilene’s built with the last four in 1913 and used until 1928.
The plants followed similar designs with one or two buildings, some sheds for coal and a distinctive cylindrical structure called a gas holder. The gas holder would be build over a large underground tank. The gas would then be transported to different customers through a system of pipes underneath the city streets.
“Usually the gas works was located at a low elevation relative to the rest of the city because gas is naturally lighter than air and would rise through the mains,” Junge said.
The main concerns people would start to have with the plants revolved around the lack of control and no way to fix certain issues.
When the gas picked up humidity and created condensation, colder days could lead to blocks or breaking pipes from the water freezing over.
The chemical Naphthalene would sometimes be found crystallizing in the pipes, creating an unpleasant odor when mixed with the gas and an unsafe environment for the homeowner.
The gas pipes also disturbed citizens by making noises and burning parts of their home. If a homeowner didn’t correctly adjust their burners, they could experience carbon monoxide poisoning.
In places, like Allen County, people discovered the land was rich with accessible reserves of natural gas.
Natural gas soon became a powerhouse industry for Kansas followed by the development of electric power.
In the 2000s, Kansas Department of Health and Environment began locating and assessing the environmental impact former plants left on Kansas.
When plants closed down, many towns decided to tear down the buildings, but left behind the underground tank. Certain companies would come in and fill the tanks with leftover equipment, residual materials that could not be reused and construction debris.
In Wellington, the town created a park and community center at the old gas plant. Historian of the Sellers Park, Marie Seelers VanDeneter, described the hard work from locals to fill the tank.
“Many men with teams and wagons gave their time and equipment free of charge to help with the hauling…” VanDeneter wrote. “Everyone seemed to catch the spirit, with one city ward vying with another to see which could contribute the most trash to fill the old gas tank.”
Even with the gas tanks filled, the department started to create remediation plans to help stop any materials polluting local ground water. “These substances are typically immobile when buried in the subsurface and do not migrate appreciable distances by, for example, contaminating very large amounts of ground water.” Junge said.
“Remedial efforts usually involve contaminant source removal and/or containment and a long term commitment to assessing and monitoring ground water quality,” Junge said.