Twenty years ago, the state found itself at a pollution crossroads. There were more than 100 closed, state-permitted landfills across Minnesota that had accepted garbage, and many of them were contaminating drinking water and generating explosive methane gas.
Some of these landfills threatened the health of people who lived near them. They needed to be cleaned up. At the time, the only solution available for doing so was the Superfund program, which had been created to deal with former industrial sites like the infamous Love Canal in New York State.
Problem was, Superfund is a “polluter pays” program — those who caused the contamination were legally responsible for cleaning it up. But at a landfill, the polluters are all of us. Every business and citizen whose garbage was taken to a landfill was potentially responsible under Superfund. Nonetheless, the state had no choice but to name and go after responsible parties to clean up these sites.
And that’s what we did, starting with the larger businesses and waste haulers who took garbage to landfills. They in turn sued their insurance companies to recover costs, who in turn sued smaller individual businesses. The situation got so bad that in the Anoka area, insurers for the named responsible parties at the leaking Oak Grove landfill sent letters to small businesses throughout Anoka County demanding that they pony up or be sued.
Art Dunn, now retired but a solid-waste manager at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency at the time, recalled, “They went after every local business they could find whose garbage was in that facility, and sent letters to them threatening lawsuits if they did not become part of the solution and pay for the cleanup.”
“That hit Main Street quite hard and put fear in the hearts of many,” he said. “It resulted in the Legislature standing up and taking notice” that closed landfills had become a big problem and we needed a new way to clean them up.
The solution was the Landfill Cleanup Act of 1994. This landmark legislation set in law a radical idea — that landfills are a societal problem for which the state would assume responsibility. The MPCA’s response was to set up the Closed Landfill Program. Nothing like this had been done anywhere else, and the law is still one of the very few to deal with closed landfills in this way.
“The fact the program came together and was able to be passed so quickly, and that it has been so successful, proves it was a good law,” said MPCA Closed Landfill Supervisor Doug Day. “For one thing, it made all those lawsuits go away, so we could really start focusing on cleanups.”
With $90 million in bond funding provided by the Legislature, the program started cleaning up old, closed landfills that were leaking gas and contaminating groundwater. Some were dug up and moved to other landfills with better controls. At others, eroding caps were repaired and upgraded, gas collection systems were installed and pipes were placed to collect leachate, the liquid from decomposing garbage that can foul groundwater. Major construction projects included the Hopkins Landfill, the Washington County Landfill, and the Flying Cloud Landfill in Eden Prairie, and the WLSSD Landfill in Duluth.
The Legislature also foresaw the need to fund care of these landfills in perpetuity, and created the Closed Landfill Investment Fund in 1999. The CLIF was seeded with about $20 million in transfers and other monies and left to grow until 2020, after which it is intended to serve as a permanent fund for long-term care of closed landfills. The Legislature borrowed from the fund in 2010 but is paying it back with interest.
Today, the MPCA counts 109 landfills in the Closed Landfill Program, with more than 30 owned by the state. Once landfills are closed, they need to be maintained for decades. So with most of the larger construction projects done or under way, the program is turning its attention to long-term management of the sites.
Over the years, the MPCA found that expensive reconstruction projects aren’t always needed. Sometimes it’s more cost-effective to ensure that only appropriate land uses occur on and near these landfills to keep people safe; in other words, keep development away. Since local governments regulate land use, the MPCA encourages them to adopt controls such as zoning and setbacks at or near the sites.
The MPCA also looks to beneficial reuse of some of the land. For example, this winter the state will install large solar arrays at two landfills, one in Washington County and the other near the city of Saint Michael. Eventually the state will sell power to the grid from those and perhaps future solar arrays built at closed landfills.