Mystery and controversy surround 'freeway landfill' in Burnsville

It’s the state of Minnesota’s largest toxic landfill and chances are you’ve passed right by it hundreds of times driving on 35W on the south end of the Twin Cities. Taxpayers could soon be on the hook to clean up the mess at a cost of $60 million and the owner of the landfill could also walk away with millions of development dollars.

Currently a grass prairie covers the 140 acre site in Burnsville located between the Minnesota River and 35W. The landfill was shut down in 1993 and the trash covered with coal ash. Once known as the "freeway landfill", in the 1970's and 1980's, it was the final resting place for most of the Twin Cities’ trash.  Just about everything was buried there, about 5 million cubic yards of trash, enough to fill up seven IDS- buildings, from top to bottom. 

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has been testing the ground water underneath the landfill for the last month. 

"No matter what's in there we have to make sure we need to protect public health and environment. That's our duty and that's what we are looking at,” said Kirk Koudelka, an Assistant Commissioner for the MPCA.

The Fox 9 Investigators reviewed 40 years of agency documents. They show the landfill took in 20 truckloads of battery casings, which the state allowed at the time and 448 tons of melted down toxic metals, called sweat furnace slag.  There is also a laundry list of cancer causing chemicals found in various quantities.

The undeveloped land is a gateway into the city of Burnsville. City leaders told Fox 9 protecting the environment is the number one priority when talking about any kind of future development.  But the city has entertained elaborate fantasies for the land for a long time.  Planners once envisioned an outdoor amphitheater. Now they are dreaming of a golf course, corporate offices and maybe even homes.

"It would be a great place to have a wonderful gateway development, absolutely," said Burnsville City Manager Heather Johnston.

But to get the land, the city, state, and county must strike a deal with Michael McGowan, who declined to talk to us on camera.   His father started the landfill in 1969, and he now operates a waste transfer station next door. He also owns a nearby golf range. McGowan wants to maintain development rights to the land and claims the landfill is safe, as is. 

Why not just keep the contaminated soil where it is?  A quarry next to the landfill has been pumping water out of an aquifer, keeping the water table right below the contaminate soil. Trouble is, in 10 to 20 years they're going to shut down the quarry and the water table will rise to the level of the contaminated soil.

Burnsville and Savage currently get their drinking water from the quarry.  That water is testing safe for now.  The concern is how the ground water, and the Minnesota River, could be contaminated by the landfill in the future. The MPCA wants to put the freeway landfill into the state's "closed landfill program," which means Minnesota taxpayers would cover the cost of clean-up. Among the options: Digging up the trash and moving it to another site, cost: $57 million. Or covering the landfill, and putting in protective liners, which would run about $42 million. 

The Fox 9 Investigators obtained a draft of an agreement the state offered two weeks ago, in which McGowan would maintain development rights to at least half the property. The hitch in the negotiations is what should McGowan pay to clean up the site, a landfill used by the general public? 

“Everyone benefits from a protected environment,” said Johnston. “But on the development side it could bring in anything from $50 to $150 million dollars in taxes. Everyone benefits.”

The secret negotiations have heated up in recent weeks, with a looming deadline imposed by the EPA.  It’s one of many deadlines that have come and gone.  The concern is: if all the parties don't reach a deal by August 30th the EPA will step in and take over the superfund site and that could lead to even more years of bureaucracy and red tape.