About 185 parties that dumped trash in a polluted Burnsville landfill may be indemnified from having to pay for the $70 million cleanup if a bill under consideration at the Capitol survives opposition from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
The entities, including contracting and construction businesses, cities and school districts, got letters from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this winter saying they had to help pay for the multimillion-dollar cleanup cost of Burnsville’s Freeway Landfill because they disposed of garbage in it decades ago.
“Constituents came to me after they received letters from the EPA … [saying] they owe $64,000, and it’s like, what?” said Rep. Roz Peterson, who is carrying the legislation in the House.
“A lot of these people are second- or maybe even third-generation owners of these businesses that got caught up in this lawsuit.”
The impact of those letters has rippled across the state, affecting 57 of the 134 House representatives’ constituents, Peterson said.
The legislation would not free the dump’s owner from responsibility for cleaning up the site, which Peterson said is the “No. 1, high-risk landfill in the state.”
Long before the government notified parties that they would be on the hook for a share of the cleanup costs, the state had another solution in mind.
The MPCA had wanted to enter the site in Minnesota’s Closed Landfill Program, which would have sent the cleanup tab to the state. But that required an agreement with the family of Richard McGowan, which has owned the landfill since the 1960s.
Negotiations fell through last summer and the feds stepped in to oversee cleanup of the Superfund site. That process is typically more expensive and complicated than the state’s program. It likely includes moving the garbage, placing it on a liner and capping it to contain pollutants.
The prospect of paying thousands of dollars for cleanup scares the companies involved, said Peder Larson, an attorney who helped write the legislation and is representing several of the affected businesses. Larson is a former MPCA commissioner. He contends that it’s unfair to charge the companies that used the dump.
Dozens of them have folded, meaning those still in business would pay a larger share, he said. And while some of the businesses have grown, others are smaller or less successful now.
“This bill treats people like the Closed Landfill Act was designed to treat people,” Larson said of the legislation. “The state should fix the problem with the law that leaves these people hanging and subject to these liabilities.”
The MPCA “understands the concerns, and shares the concerns” of people who have been roped into the Superfund situation, said Kirk Koudelka, the MPCA’s assistant commissioner. But the agency doesn’t support the legislation as written.
Koudelka said the bill places too much responsibility on the state, which didn’t cause the pollution. He said the agency is concerned that if the bill becomes law and any of the potentially responsible polluters gets sued — either by the dump’s owners or someone affected by the pollution — the state might have to pay the legal expenses.
In addition, as a Superfund site, the state would also have to pay the federal government for its oversight of the project.
“It creates a terrible precedent,” Koudelka said. “This [bill] doesn’t get us any closer to clean up. We need to get on the property.”
Peterson agrees the cleanup is a priority. Even so, she said, “These third parties need to be able to move on with their lives.”
The bill has already passed as part of a larger environmental bill in the House and is being considered by the Senate.
‘We’ve already paid’
Michael McGowan, a family spokesman, wrote in a letter that the site isn’t environmentally hazardous and that environmental agencies have falsified data to make it appear so. The family has repeatedly fought efforts to clean it up.
McGowan and his lawyer didn’t respond to interview requests.
Burnsville city officials are invested in the legislation because the city used the landfill and now is responsible for paying for cleanup. They’re also worried the landfill could degrade the quality of the city’s drinking water, said Heather Johnston, Burnsville’s city manager.
Johnston said that the city, like the other potentially responsible parties, has already paid the state to help with landfill cleanup through insurance settlements more than 15 years ago.
“We’ve done what we needed to do,” Johnston said. “We’ve already paid and we feel like we should be held harmless at this point.”
The state collected about $40 million from those settlements in 1993 dollars, Rep. Peterson said, which went into the Closed Landfill Investment Fund.
Uldis Erdmanis, CEO of Buck Blacktop in St. Paul, one of the entities that used the dump, wants the MPCA and the Legislature to work with the McGowan family to solve the problem, leaving the companies, cities and school districts out of it.
“It’s a community problem that has to be solved by the community,” Erdmanis said. “It has to be done right away, because right now the ball is rolling.”