The old Freeway Landfill looks like a prairie, a vast stretch of untamed grass running into dense pockets of trees. It’s hard to imagine the trash beneath, running 20 feet deep under layers of soil.

For decades, state environmental officials have grappled with the 150-acre landfill just off Interstate 35W in Burnsville, trying to figure out how to keep toxins there from contaminating the Minnesota River and a nearby water supply. The McGowan family has owned the land since the 1960s and has fought back every step of the way, arguing that the landfill poses no risk to the environment.

Negotiations between the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency [MPCA] and Michael McGowan over cleaning up the landfill fell apart at the end of July, setting in motion a costly federal process that could embroil cities, counties and school districts across the metro. It’s the beginning of the end of a long, litigious saga that ultimately comes down to a single question: Who’s responsible for cleaning up the landfill?

“This is an issue that goes back a long way,” said Dan McElroy, a former state legislator who was Burnsville mayor in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “Some of the issues have changed, and some have stayed almost exactly the same.”

Decades-long fight

Freeway Landfill accepted trash between 1969 and 1990. Since then, plans for the site’s future have come and gone.

The Minnesota Wild once envisioned a 19,500-seat amphitheater. Developers have expressed interest in putting warehouses on the land, McGowan said. And Burnsville officials have talked about a mixed-use development with commercial, industrial and recreation space.

Meanwhile, the McGowans have fought against cleaning up the site. In 1987, the MPCA sued Michael McGowan’s father, Richard, and R.B. McGowan Co. Inc. for costs associated with investigating toxic substances at the site. The McGowans eventually paid a $127,000 settlement, but did not admit liability.

Now, the MPCA has given up on an attempt to conduct a five-year, $64.4 million cleanup through the state’s Closed Landfill Program. The Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] will take over the landfill through its Superfund program, leaving the entities responsible for putting trash in the landfill — from counties to trash haulers — holding the cleanup bill.

Under the Superfund process, McGowan and other parties responsible for putting trash in the landfill will have to create and pay for a cleanup plan that’s acceptable to the EPA. What happens to the land will hinge on the cleanup plan and agreement, MPCA Assistant Commissioner Kirk Koudelka said in an e-mail. Unless McGowan gives up the land as part of the agreement, it will remain his.

Environmental risks

A quarry owned by Kraemer Mining & Materials abuts Freeway Landfill and provides drinking water to Burnsville and Savage. As part of the mining process, millions of gallons are pumped out of the quarry each day.

Pumping keeps the water table low, preventing groundwater from coming in contact with the trash at Freeway Landfill. When the mining operation stops, though — likely in the next 15 to 20 years — the water could become contaminated.

“The big question that I have is, what’s going to happen to the water quality when that happens?” said Bo Johnston, a consultant who assists in Burnsville’s municipal water testing.

Burnsville, the Minnesota Department of Health and the Department of Natural Resources all monitor water quality, either directly out of the quarry or once it’s been treated. Testing for contamination in the groundwater directly below the landfill is more complicated.

In 2012, the MPCA issued an order for biannual testing of wells around the perimeter of the landfill, citing failure to comply with a post-closure plan approved in 1991. Violations included failure to conduct sampling and analysis, failure to submit data and submitting incomplete data, according to the 2012 order.

A schedule created as part of the order required different types and rates of testing for about a dozen different wells. Some are tested for contaminants in both spring and fall; others are just tested for water level.

Senior hydrogeologist Mark Umholtz said the MPCA has been flexible in order to get the best data possible.

“We try and be very reasonable and understanding,” he said. “We’re not out just to get people; we’re trying to collect data so we can evaluate the risk to human health and the environment.”

Last summer, the MPCA installed 10 wells in the center of the landfill. Three tests completed in that time have found contaminants including heavy metals and carcinogenic vinyl chloride, according to MPCA data.

Landowner pushback

For years, McGowan has complained that this property — and his family — have been treated unfairly. For one thing, he said, the MPCA is scrutinizing Freeway Landfill but not another active landfill on the other side of the quarry.

McGowan has said the MPCA fabricated test results and is trying to steal his land. During negotiations to enter the Closed Landfill Program, he raised concerns about how the cleanup might affect his ability to develop the site and operate his main business, a garbage transfer station on the landfill site.

Standing at the center of the landfill on a hot, sunny afternoon, McGowan snatched a neon-colored flag from an MPCA well and hurled it to the ground.

“They came in looking for a problem,” he said.