Who should pay to clean up the Washington County landfill?

  • Article by: TOM MEERSMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 13, 2008 - 7:39 PM

Some lawmakers say 3M should be held responsible for more than the $8 million they agreed to spend. The total cleanup costs are estimated at $23.5 million or more.

Taxpayers could be on the hook to pay $15 million or more toward the cost of cleaning up a former landfill in Washington County contaminated with 3M industrial chemicals.

As part of a $1 billion bonding bill, lawmakers have proposed borrowing that much to dig up and make the landfill leak proof, while 3M provides $8 million under an agreement with the state last year.

But some lawmakers say that 3M should bear the entire cost for the Washington County landfill--estimated at $23.5 million or more--since the main reason for the cleanup is the contamination of groundwater from 3M's chemicals.

"It seems as though the taxpayers and the citizens are getting fleeced because it clearly is 3M's problem and their pollution, and now we're paying for it," said Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport.

But the company maintains that the former Washington County landfill, like all other closed public landfills, is the legal responsibility of the state -- not of the companies that sent wastes to it. "3M was under no obligation to pay anything, and yet we have volunteered to make an $8 million contribution to the state of Minnesota," company spokesman Bill Nelson said.

Unlike Superfund sites, where private firms are required to pay for pollution cleanup, public landfills are different. To ensure that they would be closed properly and monitored for leaks and other problems, Minnesota took ownership of about 100 public landfills, including the former Washington County landfill, in the Minnesota Landfill Cleanup Act of 1994.

Studies in recent years have shown that it has leaked perfluorochemicals formerly made by 3M into the nearby communities of Lake Elmo and Oakdale. The company disposed of those chemicals -- used for nonstick cookware, stain-repellent fabrics and other products -- at the Washington County landfill in the early 1970s.

3M paid about $2.5 million to install a carbon filtering system for two of Oakdale's public wells in 2006, and about $4.3 million to hook up more than 200 private wells in Lake Elmo to untainted city water.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Citizens' Board was warned that the potential cost of the landfill cleanup could be far more than the $8 million that the company had agreed to pay. Lawyers for private citizens suing 3M submitted a critique of the negotiated settlement last May shortly before the Citizens' Board approved it.

"While portrayed as a community benefit," they said, the $8 million "is really a 'cap' on 3M's liability to the state." Attorneys noted that the average cost of a Superfund cleanup was much higher, in the range of $35 million to $40 million.

The latest estimate for excavating the 35-acre site, installing a liner at the bottom, and then refilling it is about $23.5 million, said Doug Day, MPCA supervisor of the closed landfill unit. The project will be done in stages over three years, he said, and details are not final. Costs could be several million dollars higher if officials decide on a double or triple liner system to contain the pollutants, Day said.

Rep. Dennis McNamara, R-Hastings, said he's glad that 3M "stepped up to the plate" to help finance at least part of the cleanup costs. "Do I wish 3M was paying more? Absolutely," McNamara said. "But I realize that it's unprecedented to get what we've got."

It's unprecedented, he said, because companies have not previously paid to help clean up public landfills.

One of those who championed the Landfill Cleanup Act was Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis. Wagenius said the Washington County landfill is unlike other public landfills, because it was easy to identify a single company responsible for the wastes that contaminated the groundwater.

"3M can argue that they don't have a legal responsibility but they certainly have a moral responsibility, because what they're asking is for people in future generations to pay for problems that they clearly created," she said.

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388

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