The WDE Landfill in Andover is one of Minnesota’s top two most toxic closed landfills. The liner for its hazardous waste pit has dissolved, chemicals are leaking from thousands of barrels of toxic waste, and pollutants have saturated the underlying soil and contaminated an aquifer beneath the site.
But with a critical end-of-the-month deadline looming, funding for a cleanup plan remains snarled in the state’s divided Legislature.
“There’s no guarantees after this week,” said Kirk Koudelka, assistant commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA).
The agency, which adopted the moldering landfill in 1995 as part of its Closed Landfill Program, has a contractor ready to dig out the old waste and contaminated soil and haul it away for proper disposal or incineration. It would culminate years of work on a final solution for the landfill.
But sourcing the money for the cleanup has continually proved problematic.
In 2016, the MPCA got $650,000 from the state’s general fund to start the project, and in 2017 the Legislature approved an additional $11.35 million, mostly in general obligation bonds. Most of that is earmarked for the prep work and cleanup.
Last year, the Legislature assigned an additional $6 million from the lottery-funded Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund. Environmental groups, however, called that an “unprecedented raid” on a conservation fund designed to pay for construction projects and sued to block it. The money remains tied up in litigation. Meanwhile, the cost of the project grew based on new findings.
So this year, the agency returned to the Legislature for an additional $10.3 million to get the $22.3 million cleanup project going.
This time, the DFL-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate can’t agree on a funding source. Missing the MPCA’s end-of-February deadline could force a costly delay and a potentially higher bid, the agency says. Patience is fraying on all sides.
“I don’t care how this thing gets funded. Just fund it,” said Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover. “Are we just going to wait until there’s a disaster in Andover?”
The contractor, Massachusetts-based Clean Harbors Inc., declined to comment.
From the ground in Andover, the old WDE Landfill looks like a fenced-off, elevated athletic field. Deer sometimes traipse through the expansive grass-covered mound.
Beneath the surface lies a different story. Most of the landfill consists of garbage, but in the 1970s the dump took hazardous materials from across the state — including used paint, solvents, plating sludge and cyanides — and buried them in a one-third acre pit on the site. The facility is the only one of 110 landfills in the state’s Closed Landfill Program that was permitted to accept hazardous waste.
Given its high risk rating, the landfill is the MPCA’s top priority landfill cleanup project, and the agency wants to start the prep work this summer, Koudelka said.
Mitigation systems at the Andover pit have been pumping out contaminated groundwater and burning off vapors. The local drinking water has not been contaminated, Koudelka said, because residents are connected to city drinking wells that are deeper and north of the site. A local creek is currently within safety limits for pollutants.
But the mitigation efforts are short-term, not a permanent solution, Koudelka said.
The MPCA thinks the final $10.3 million should come via general obligation bonds, the traditional way such landfill projects are financed. “We’ve told both bodies what our preference is,” Koudelka said.
Yet last week the Senate passed a bill authored by Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, to borrow the $10.3 million from the state’s Closed Landfill Investment Fund and repay it in the fall from an anticipated state budget surplus. Ingebrigtsen said legislators have tapped the fund before, noting that last year they took out $3 million for work on the MPCA’s other problem landfill, the Freeway Landfill in Burnsville.
“This was the best way we could come up with to get cash immediately,” Ingebrigtsen said in an interview. “Bonding takes time.” It’s also more expensive, he noted.
The MPCA says that’s an inappropriate use of the fund. The Closed Landfill Investment Fund started in 1999 with money from a solid waste fund and insurance money from settlements with operators. State law says the fund “shall be managed to maximize long-term gain through the State Board of Investment.”
It also says money in the fund can be spent only after fiscal 2020. The MPCA’s plan, said Koudelka, has been to let the fund’s principal grow and use only the investment income to care for closed landfills.
Taking $10.3 million from the fund will cut the principal by nearly 12 percent and reduce the state’s ability to meet future obligations, Koudelka said in a Feb. 13 letter to lawmakers. He estimates that the MPCA will need more than $277 million over the next 30 years to care for all the closed landfills in its keep.
But the landfill pot of money has proved irresistible. It’s still recovering from 2010, when the Legislature took $48 million to plug the state’s budget deficit, only part of which has been repaid.
House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said she agrees the fund should be off limits. The House is ready, she said, with a bill to issue general obligation bonds for the Andover project — along with all the projects whose funding is tied up in the litigation over using the Environment and Natural Resources Fund.
Hortman said she just hasn’t been able to get the Senate to buy in.
Andover’s Mayor Julie Trude said she’s so frustrated she contacted the governor’s office for help breaking the logjam. She implored the Legislature to “just figure it out.”
“It’s like a decayed tooth that needs a filling,” Trude said. “Delay carries increased risks with increased costs and potentially, unintended consequences.”