The Environmental Protection Agency is taking over the cleanup of a Burnsville landfill — which could mean big bills for businesses, school districts and cities around the metro that sent trash there.

The state has spent months negotiating with the landfill owner in hopes of avoiding the EPA’s Superfund cleanup process. That process would likely involve protracted lawsuits as the EPA tries to recover costs from companies and municipalities that used the landfill, local government officials said. Officials expect that those legal expenses will make the EPA’s cleanup far more expensive than the state’s $64.4 million plan to fix the site.

Freeway Landfill, located south of the Minnesota River along Interstate 35W, will be the first landfill in Minnesota to go through the federal Superfund program — unless a last-minute agreement is reached, MPCA Assistant Commissioner Kirk Koudelka said. But such a deal between the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the McGowan family, which owns the landfill, appears unlikely.

“The last draft that was presented to us by the PCA … was not acceptable to the McGowans,” Michael McGowan said.

The landfill stopped accepting trash about 25 years ago, but McGowan said he wants to continue operating a garbage transfer station located on part of the landfill property. He believes the state’s cleanup plan, which would interfere with the transfer business, is unnecessary.

State officials said if the landfill is left as-is it could eventually contaminate the environment and drinking water in the area.

Missed deadlines

The MPCA would not provide details on negotiations with the McGowans or how much the family would have to pay under the state’s plan.

The EPA originally gave the state and the McGowans until June 30 to figure out how to handle the landfill. The federal agency granted numerous extensions to that time frame. But after the latest deadline expired Dec. 15, the EPA began the Superfund cleanup process by requesting a list of “potentially responsible parties.” Those are groups that contributed to trash at the site and might have to help pay to clean it up.

The state gave the EPA boxes of documents listing hundreds of parties, including local school districts and municipalities, that used the landfill during the two decades it operated, Koudelka said. Legal battles to recover costs from those landfill users are expected to drag out for years, local officials said.

The McGowans would also be asked to pay through the federal Superfund program, but it is unclear how much.

The MPCA had hoped to clean up Freeway Landfill using its Closed Landfill Program. That program was created to replace the expensive and legally messy Superfund system. The program uses state general obligation bonds, tax dollars and past insurance settlements to properly close and maintain landfills.

At the Freeway Landfill, MPCA’s $64.4 million plan would have collected methane released from the trash and added a protective liner around the waste. The liner would have prevented contaminants from seeping into the Minnesota River and the drinking water supply that Burnsville and Savage rely on.

Whether the EPA would take a similar approach remains to be seen. So far, the agency is just gathering information about the site.

The water supply by the landfill is not currently in danger because a nearby quarry pumps enough water to keep the water table low and prevent trash from touching the groundwater, according to MPCA documents. When the quarry eventually stops operating, the water table will rise and touch the waste, MPCA studies show.

But McGowan has rejected the MPCA’s proposal. He said that the landfill is not violating any state standards and the protective measures are unnecessary.

The MPCA is not treating him fairly, McGowan said, noting that the nearby Burnsville Landfill is also located near the river and the drinking water supply, and only part of it has a liner around the trash.