Any company or municipality that used a Burnsville landfill over its two decades of operation could be on the hook to help pay millions to clean it up if the property owner and the state can’t agree on how to handle the trash-filled land.

Michael McGowan, whose family owns the 150-acre Freeway Landfill, said he has been treated unfairly by the state. He doesn’t think his family should pay for the cleanup. He’s also unwilling to surrender control of much of the property, which is required for the public cleanup process.

“We are not violating applicable state standards,” McGowan said, adding that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency “is trying to steal our land.”

The initial cost of cleanup is not looking cheap. The MPCA, which wants to finish the job through its Closed Landfill Program, will hold a public meeting Thursday to discuss its own $64.4 million solution.

But if negotiations between the two sides fail, cleanup of the landfill potentially would cost many millions more.

The landfill, adjacent to a municipal drinking water supply and the Minnesota River, would be taken over by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund program. The EPA would identify primary groups responsible for the contamination — often the landfill owner, trash haulers and others — who would have to pay for the cleanup.

Then those parties likely would sue other entities whose waste ended up at the landfill over the years, such as cities, school districts and small businesses, to help cover the cost.

“All it does is become the lawyers’ best friend,” Dakota County Physical Development Director Steve Mielke said of the Superfund process, which involves lawsuits that drag out for years.

“By the time you’re done you’re talking about multiples of whatever the initial cleanup cost is.”

If it comes to that, Freeway would be the first landfill in the state to be cleaned up under the Superfund program, MPCA Assistant Commissioner Kirk Koudelka said.

MPCA’s proposal

Freeway Landfill, on the south side of the river near Interstate 35W, stopped taking trash more than two decades ago. But the MPCA says it was never properly dealt with after it closed.

The MPCA’s Closed Landfill Program, which was created to avoid the expensive Superfund process, uses tax dollars, bonds and past insurance settlements to pay for landfill cleanup and maintenance.

Officials with the Closed Landfill Program want to move Freeway Landfill trash onto a protective liner and install systems to collect methane and keep waste from leaching into the earth.

The landfill does not pose an immediate threat to the safety of nearby drinking water, officials said, because a quarry next door is constantly pumping out water, keeping the water table low and preventing trash from contaminating the groundwater.

But officials are concerned about what could happen in a decade or two, when the quarry stops operating. Studies conducted this summer show the water table would rise up and touch the trash, Koudelka said. While officials don’t know when the quarry will stop operating, they do know it will take five years to install all the protective measures.

“We have to act before that happens, before contamination starts to spread,” Koudelka said. “The more time that goes by, the higher the cost is going to be.”

McGowan’s concerns

Negotiations between the McGowan family and the state have failed before, prompting the federal government to step in.

The EPA initially imposed a June 30 deadline for the two parties to come to an agreement, warning that it would take over if they could not come up with a plan. Numerous meetings and three deadline extensions later, they are still not on the same page. The next deadline is Dec. 15.

A letter from the MPCA requesting the latest extension said that the “framework for an agreement is gaining traction,” and asked for more time to hold the public meeting.

McGowan said he wants a resolution but added, “It’s public waste and there should be a public remedy.”

Freeway Landfill is a unique case, Koudelka said. Other property owners saw their polluted land as a liability and handed it over to the state, he said, and they didn’t have to pay for clean up.

But the McGowans own another business at Freeway Landfill — a garbage transfer station — that they want to keep operating. Since they want to keep using part of the site they may have to cover some costs, Koudelka said. How much is still being discussed.

While the state would need some control of the land for the Closed Landfill Program, Koudelka said, McGowan “doesn’t have to give it all over to the state if he doesn’t want to.”

McGowan also is concerned about how the MPCA measured contaminants on his property. He said the agency has done it differently at other landfills, and that other landfills near watersheds have not had to install liners under the trash.

Koudelka said the agency has used the same contaminant measurement methods elsewhere, but usually does some of that sampling after the landfill is already in the Closed Landfill Program. The research happened earlier at Freeway, he said, because McGowan wanted more certainty about what would happen at the site. As for the plan to put down a protective liner, he said that is a case-by-case decision depending on the waste’s consistency and where it is located.