Deadline looms for Burnsville, Minn. 'Freeway Landfill'

Time may be running out for the state's largest superfund site. The old freeway landfill closed 25 years ago.  Today, it has potential for redevelopment, but also the risk of contaminating local groundwater. 

The site is located on 140 acres in Burnsville, Minn. Drivers on Interstate 35W can see it west of the freeway along the Minnesota River. The land is both a developers dream and a superfund nightmare, but nothing will happen here unless the state cuts a deal with Michael McGowan.

"What I would like to have is as much developable land as possible," he said.

His father started the freeway landfill in 1969. And for the next 20 years it was the final resting place for most of the Twin Cities trash.  Five million cubic yards of trash are buried there. That's enough to fill seven IDS buildings.  

"It was public waste that was dumped here. So the argument would be the public should share in the cleanup. McGowan said.  "At the time we did what was allowed by law."

That's the logic behind Minnesota's "closed landfill" program. If McGowan signs over the property, Minnesota will clean up the site and taxpayers pick up the more than $60 million tab.
In exchange, McGowan gets to keep 45 acres to develop, but with strings and costs attached.  He currently has a trash transfer station on the site.  But after years of negotiations, the EPA recently granted a third, and most likely, final deadline for both sides to reach a deal, on December 15, in less than 3 weeks.

"We think we've been treated unfairly and disparately by the PCA," said Mcgowan.

Asst. Commissioner Kirk Koudelka won't reveal details of the negotiations.  But the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is armed with a round of new ground water testing and computer modeling conducted this summer, showing contaminants like chromium, cobalt, copper, and chloride that could leak into the ground water and the Minnesota River.

"There are exceedances for heavy metal and other substances. And that's where our concern is because it violated drinking water standards and other standards," said Koudelka.

The ground water is safe, for now.  The problem is a quarry next door, located below the landfill. The Kramer Quarry pumps out millions of gallons of ground water every day. When it closes in a few years, and becomes a lake, the water table is predicted to rise, soaking into the trash above, so the MPCA wants to dig up the trash, move it, add a plastic liner and then move it back. 
McGowan believes all that is unnecessary, and that the trash is fine where it is. 

The Fox 9 Investigators went through boxes of documents the MPCA has kept on the freeway landfill. Documents show it once took in 20 truckloads of battery casings, 448 tons of melted down toxic metals, and a laundry list of cancer causing chemicals.

"I would say that's true of all landfills. Waste accepted in the 70s and 80s was allowed and approved by the PCA," said McGowan.

McGowan will tell you, he doesn't believe he'll reach a deal by the deadline. But he could also be playing poker. So could the MPCA for that matter. The question is whether it's the environment and Burnsville's ground water, that's taking the gamble.

"We were permitted by Minnesota, inspected by the MPCA, we have done nothing wrong," said McGowan.

That is not completely true. The freeway landfill has been cited for a number of violations over the years. And the MPCA and Dakota County even threatened to revoke permits on a couple of occasions. If a deal is not reached, the EPA in Washington will take charge of oversight of the old freeway landfill. The expectation is that would lead to years of red tape, and no development whatsoever.