Four landfills in the Twin Cities' southern suburbs could be expanded to take millions more tons of trash in the coming years as metro-area residents continue to produce a deluge of garbage.
The expansions, recommended by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) this summer, would allow four landfills in Burnsville, Inver Grove Heights and Shakopee to grow their municipal solid waste capacity by a combined 5.6 million tons over the next seven years.
"We generate roughly one ton [of garbage] per household, per year," said Peder Sandhei, the agency's principal planner. "When you add up the 3.5 million people in the metro area, that's a lot of waste."
But some residents living near the landfills and at least one neighboring city are balking at the plans. Dozens of people shared comments at a public meeting or via e-mail, voicing worries about water pollution and environmental justice issues, among other things.
The MPCA has long urged Minnesotans to recycle more and reduce waste, designating landfills as the least desirable way to get rid of trash. But officials now say they have little choice but to pursue more capacity.
John Linc Stine, MPCA commissioner from 2012 to 2019, said the expansion plans should be a "wake-up call" that the Twin Cities is still producing far too much garbage.
"We're not anywhere close to the day when we don't need landfills," said Stine, executive director of the nonprofit Freshwater Society.
Still, he said residents should ask questions about the expansions.
"I think people are right to be concerned," he said. "There is no such thing as a leakproof landfill."
The state agency's recommendations are preliminary, and several other processes must take place before expansion can occur. An environmental review is often required, and landfill owners must obtain local and state permits.
The expansion recommendation would provide more space at two landfills that already take household waste: an additional 2.4 million tons of capacity at Pine Bend Sanitary Landfill in Inver Grove Heights, which is owned by Arizona-based Republic Services, and space for 1.7 million more tons at Burnsville Sanitary Landfill.
Two other south metro landfills that accept only industrial and demolition waste would be allowed to take household garbage for the first time. Dem-Con near Shakopee would be able to take 628,000 tons of household waste, and Rich Valley in Inver Grove Heights could accept 894,000 tons.
The amount of garbage going to landfills has increased by 30% in the past year, MPCA officials said, largely because of the closure of the Elk River garbage burner. The metro area's waste-to-energy plants are operating at full capacity, MPCA officials said.
Despite the MPCA's ambitious goal of recycling 75% of waste by 2030, just under half of our waste is now recycled, including organics. Though we're recycling more, we're also producing more trash, MPCA officials said.
The potential landfill expansions don't come without controversy about the facilities' size, odors and operations.
Bloomington Mayor Tim Busse wrote a letter to the MPCA detailing concerns about the Burnsville Sanitary Landfill's expansion, including its effect on the nearby Minnesota River and the adjacent wildlife refuge area. Busse also suggested the MPCA prioritize environmental justice, the idea that environmental burdens should be distributed evenly rather than concentrated in poorer areas. In this case, the Burnsville landfill is near areas where residents have lower incomes, he said.
Julie Ketchum, Waste Management spokeswoman, said she hopes the MPCA's regulatory process moves quickly because space is dwindling at the Burnsville Sanitary Landfill. She estimated it has just 18 to 20 months of capacity left.
Modern landfills in general are safe environmentally, she said, citing their liners and systems for managing landfill gases. There are also stringent regulatory and operational requirements, she said.
Shakopee residents, however, are still vexed by plans to accept household garbage at the Dem-Con landfill in Louisville Township outside Shakopee.
During the public comment period on the expansion plans, many voiced environmental concerns and the landfill's location in the Minnesota River Valley as the reason for their opposition. Some suggested building more facilities to turn waste into energy. Others said they resented having to take refuse from other cities.
"We do not want other communities bringing their garbage into our community," said Emily Geselle, Shakopee resident, in an e-mail.
Despite being in the landfill business, Dem-Con President Bill Keegan said his company "embraces waste diversion," adding that Dem-Con also recycles metal, wood and curbside recyclables.
Before Dem-Con can take household waste, a full environmental study will be done, he said, adding that the company is also exploring other ways to deal with waste.
"Our vision is to get to zero waste," he said.
For now, that goal remains elusive in the Twin Cities.
"Look in your waste container," Stine, the former MPCA leader, said. "If it's not getting [to be] less and less every week, you're part of the problem."
Erin Adler • 612-673-1781