Dakota County Commissioner Liz Workman peered up at the solar eclipse in August from a prime vantage point — atop a garbage mound at the Burnsville landfill.
As the county commissioner representing Burnsville, home to nearly 400 acres of landfills, she’s no stranger to trash.
Dakota County has five open state-permitted landfills — more than any other Minnesota county.
“I called myself the queen of garbage one time,” Workman said. “I’ve been dealing with landfills since I was on the City Council here.”
Now there is fresh debate in Dakota County over how much those landfills are paying their host communities and whether the growing dumps are holding back residential and commercial development in some communities.
In Dakota County, garbage is big business. The county stands to receive nearly $7 million annually from landfill companies just for “hosting” the dumps if current negotiations go through in December. And three of its cities with landfills — Burnsville and Rosemount each have one and Inver Grove Heights has three — typically get $1 million to $2 million a year.
The money funds parks and redevelopment projects and allows the county to forgo taxing residents for solid waste disposal. Landfill companies also make other community investments. “You name it, we get involved,” said John Domke, division vice president of SKB Environmental, owner of two Dakota County landfills.
But the county has an uneasy relationship with rubbish. The money doesn’t make up for the noise, smell and wear-and-tear on roads that landfills bring, some officials said. There’s also the danger of water pollution, lost property taxes from perpetually unusable land, and the stigma.
Commissioner Joe Atkins, who represents Inver Grove Heights, said the city’s landfills don’t pay nearly enough to offset costs. Atkins mentioned a suggestion made in jest when the city was seeking a new slogan: “Follow your nose to Inver Grove.”
A dump destination
Dakota County has several kinds of landfills. Republic Services Pine Bend Landfill and Burnsville Sanitary Landfill take regular garbage. The Rosemount landfill, owned by SKB Environmental, takes industrial, demolition and construction waste. Three landfills take demolition waste: The SKB site in Inver Grove Heights (currently mothballed), the Frattalone’s Dawnway Demolition Landfill, split between Inver Grove Heights and South St. Paul, and part of the Burnsville landfill.
No one seems to know how Dakota County collected so many dumps. More than 50 years ago, when many landfills started amassing garbage, Dakota County offered open land close to transportation corridors, but far enough away from cities and suburbs that people wouldn’t have to face their refuse.
But growth of both the landfills and the suburbs is bringing them into conflict.
The Pine Bend landfill in Inver Grove Heights now towers 1,000 feet and continues to grow, said Inver Grove Heights’ Mayor George Tourville. It casts a long shadow. Tourville said the city began piping water to its southern section a dozen or so years ago because of concerns about well pollution.
Burnsville City Manager Heather Johnston said her city faces difficulty redeveloping its Minnesota River quadrant because of its nearby landfill. And garbage trucks accelerate wear on city streets, Johnston said, which costs nearly $1 million a mile to rebuild.
Sigurd Scheurle, a planning director with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, said odor, litter, dust, noise and the occasional fire also are worries, though landfill operators can minimize those problems. There is also anxiety about who will maintain landfills long-term.
Trees can’t be planted on landfills because roots grow through the liners, and no one wants to live atop yesterday’s trash.
“What are you going to do when they’re finally done and filled to the brim?” Tourville asked. “You can’t use it for anything.”
Chastity Fyksen lives in Inver Grove Heights, several hundred feet from the Frattalone landfill, which she blames for the cracks in her home’s foundation. “Every time the house shakes, I think, ‘This could be the day the house falls down,’ ” Fyksen said.
Landfill operators say modern landfills meet rigorous safety regulations. “Some folks view landfills as dirty polluting monsters and they’re anything but that,” said Domke, whose company has the only triple-lined landfill in Minnesota.
He said there are upsides to landfills. SKB has donated land for a library, pays for a Zamboni at an ice rink and sponsors band and athletics programs, Domke said.
Cities get paid for hosting landfills, generally based on the tonnage of waste collected. In 2016, Burnsville got $1.25 million from its landfill, owned by Waste Management. Inver Grove Heights got $1.9 million from its sites. And Rosemount got about $1.8 million from the SKB landfill. Dakota County expects about $7 million a year from its landfills if negotiations are successful.
Commissioner Workman acknowledges that state mandates to cut landfill waste ultimately will take a toll on Dakota County, but she says the county’s landfills still have a role to play. “We’re special,” she said. “I don’t know what all these people would do with this garbage if not for Dakota County.”