Maintaining landfills after they close is a never-ending, expensive job.

But the fund to cover the cost of keeping waste from leaking into the earth at metro landfills — like the massive sites in Burnsville and Inver Grove Heights that could eventually hold 55 million cubic yards of trash — may soon be cut to $0.

The Legislature’s proposed spending bill for agriculture and the environment temporarily empties the Metropolitan Landfill Contingency Action Trust (MLCAT), which currently contains $8.1 million — an insufficient sum due to two past pillages by the state, local officials said. The money would be transferred to the state’s general fund.

Until Thursday, the bill did not include a plan for repayment. It was updated after e-mails and calls from Dakota County officials, who feared they would be left with cleanup costs. The bill now states the money would be repaid if the state’s November revenue and expenditure forecast is positive.

“We’re very happy with the repayment of the MLCAT funds,” Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, said. “The repayment will help protect groundwater for future generations.”

Many local government officials questioned why the Legislature would need to dip into the funds in a year with a budget surplus.

“It’s not like they need $8 million in the general fund with a $2 billion surplus. Give me a break,” Inver Grove Heights Mayor George Tourville said.

Rep. Denny McNamara, who worked on the proposal to transfer the money, said it should be moved into the general fund this year because it was not well-invested. McNamara, R-Hastings, said the Legislature needs to re-evaluate MLCAT next year.

“I want to do the right thing for that fund, and I’m not sure folks have been paying attention to it properly for the last few years,” he said.

Last year, the trust earned $27,000 in interest, said Kirk Koudelka, an assistant commissioner at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

After talking with McNamara Thursday morning, Tourville was optimistic about repayment and agreed it could be better invested.

“It looks like for now it’s OK and it may be even improved,” Tourville said. “So I guess in a small way it’s a success.”

Long-term costs

The plan to pull the landfill funds has been in the budget bills since April, but morphed over time.

The bill would take another $58.2 million from a different landfill cleanup program, which currently has $66 million. It also includes a clause to pay that back if the economic forecast is good in November.

When it comes to repaying landfill funds, the Legislature’s track record is less than stellar, county and city officials said.

In 2004, $9.9 million was transferred from MLCAT to the general fund. Another $4 million was taken in 2007. Both times, the Legislature wrote that it intended to return the money in the future. None of it has been refunded.

Hansen said he believes the funds will be returned this time.

“I’m counting on that,” he said. “The repayment of the previous raids I think is a discussion for the future.”

The money in the trust comes from fees assessed when municipal waste is dropped off at metro landfills. Last year $840,000 was collected, Koudelka said. For a closed landfill to be eligible for trust funds, the original owner first must maintain the property for 30 years after it stops taking trash, according to the MPCA. So it may be decades before the MLCAT funds are needed.

But when the landfill maintenance bills come due, they will be expensive and will keep coming forever, Dakota County Administrator Brandt Richardson said. It cost more than $20 million to clean up a Washington County landfill five years ago. It was one-tenth the size of landfills in Dakota County, said Georg Fischer, Dakota County’s environmental resources director.

If the money is not repaid and Inver Grove Heights eventually gets stuck with the cost of cleaning up the local Pine Bend Landfill, Tourville said, “We’d go right to the state of Minnesota and say, ‘You took the trust fund away. You deal with it.’ ”