A festering dispute over a long-closed dump site in Washington County has delayed plans to build an elementary school for hundreds of children.

The Mahtomedi School District wants to relocate its Wildwood Elementary School to Grant, just east of that city's border with Mahtomedi. A year ago, voters approved a $45 million bond referendum to make improvements to three existing schools and build the new one.

But many Grant residents worry that vapors from garbage dumped over a period of four decades will endanger children attending the school. They also take issue with a plan to funnel dozens of buses and cars daily across the nearby Gateway State Trail, the busiest walking and cycling path in Minnesota.

"I don't think anybody's against having a school, but we sure do want to make sure it's a safe place," said Terry Derosier, a member of Grant's planning commission. "If they're building close to the dump site, is it really safe to have children playing on it?"

In response, two scientists at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) say the site is safe for the school. The dump once was under consideration as a potential Superfund hazardous waste site but that's no longer the case after contaminants were removed in the 1990s, said David Knight, project leader of the MPCA's voluntary cleanup program. Subsequent tests showed no significant concerns.

The dump area, now buried under athletic fields built atop tons of new soil, was once two disposal sites: a 10-acre private unregulated dump for common household garbage, and an adjoining two-acre demolition landfill known as Bellaire Transfer No. 2, used for building materials.

Eventually the sites merged under Bellaire's management, said John Betcher of the MPCA, and barrels of oil sludge and other toxic substances were dumped there. Despite the company's voluntary cleanup in the 1990s, many Grant residents remain doubtful that enough inspection was done.

"I would rather that the city ends up in court because the city tried to prevent an illness than three years down the road when a child ends up with leukemia and we allowed it," said resident Larry Lanoux, who wants more aggressive MPCA investigation into the dump's potential danger.

"It's perfectly safe," said Superintendent Mark Larson of the Mahtomedi district. "We did our homework and due diligence. We would never do anything to put students at risk."

The school won't be built on the dump site but about 600 feet -- the length of two football fields -- east of it. That doesn't appease residents who packed five-hour Grant planning commission meetings in February and March.

"It was very intense, a lot of residents expressing concerns," said Loren Sederstrom, who chairs the commission. He acknowledges that the MPCA hasn't found any significant problems with the dump site, but he remained concerned enough last week that he asked for more testing. "The problem is, stuff oozes out of a landfill at a later date," he said.

Betcher, a hydrogeologist, said 553 tons of waste sludge were removed from the site in the '90s cleanup. The sludges contained lead and polychlorinated biphenyls, known as PCBs, which can cause cancer.

Betcher said the MPCA now considers the site safe for the school but has advised the school district to avoid routing utilities, such as sewer and water, through the dump site.

The district has postponed a groundbreaking ceremony that had been scheduled for April 20. Larson said the district hopes to start building by this summer and open the school in the fall of 2012.

"We have a great plan," he said. "When the land was bought, it was communicated to the city in 2003 that we would be building a school. This should be no surprise. But we want to make sure that we're dotting our i's and crossing our t's."

The district spent thousands of dollars to have numerous state agencies inspect for toxins, Larson said. The district also will spend $100,000 on a vapor barrier that will prevent "any methane sneaking up from the ground," he said.

The $18 million Wildwood Elementary will include an early childhood development center and have kindergarten through second grades. The current school, built in 1959, stands several blocks west in Mahtomedi.

"It's exciting to be creating something new," Larson said. "This is a state of the art facility that will have 600 to 700 of the best kids in the world attending. But we have to put [the building] down first." 

From Grant's point of view, Sederstrom said, the district's plan is beset with problems. "What makes us nervous is that they keep changing the plans. It's a moving target," he said.

Kevin Giles • 651-735-3342 Daarel Burnette II • 651-735-1695 Twitter: @stribgiles