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Lake Elmo officials dissatisfied with 'temporary' solution to cleaning up landfill

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The residents of Lake Elmo want a permanent solution to the landfill in their midst that is contaminating their groundwater, not a stopgap measure, even one that should last 50 years.

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That was the message that city council members and residents delivered to representatives from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) Tuesday evening during a city council meeting.

Tuesday's session was a continuation of the community discussion with the state agency over the fate of the closed Washington County Landfill, which has 30 acres of municipal waste that now needs to be either moved, burned or sealed.

The landfill was the first permitted landfill in Minnesota and opened in 1969. By the time it closed in 1975, the landfill had received 2.6 million yards of mixed municipal and industrial waste.

Included in that waste were PFCs, a "very slippery" family of chemicals that does not breakdown biologically. The chemicals were developed and used by the 3M Co. from the 1940s through the early 2000s in the production of items that were heat, stain and stick resistant.

Waste from the production process had been buried along with other types of waste in the Washington County Landfill.

The landfill now is operated by the MPCA's Closed Landfill Division and the agency is asking the state Legislature for $31 million this coming session for capital costs to update several landfills in the state.

The 3M Co. has promised $8 million toward whatever mitigation measure is selected by the MPCA for the site.

Just what that money will be used for remains an open topic, and it was that discussion that continued at Tuesday's meeting. Representatives from the MPCA set out options at the Jan. 8 city council meeting for cleaning up the landfill.

Those options will be the subject of a community meeting and a comment period in the future, although the dates for neither have been set.

Tuesday's meeting was an opportunity for councilmembers to continue to ask questions of MPCA officials.

The MPCA has stated that of the six options proposed for cleaning up the landfill, its preferred method is "dig and line." This means that contractors would dig up the garbage, set it aside, install a liner in the landfill, and then replace the garbage.

Other options include digging up the garbage and trucking it away or building a garbage burner. The MPCA is seeking money from the state's Legislature during the coming session to pay for what is expected to be an initial cost of $27.6 million, with operating costs of $210,000 per year in the future to continue to monitor the landfill.

But that only leaves the garbage in the community for the foreseeable future, councilmembers said, with no guarantee that the landfill won't continue to leak contaminants into surrounding groundwater.

First, the council wanted to be sure that the MPCA officials are still open to discussion, and have not made a final decision. The decision is still open, they were assured by Douglas Day, supervisor of the Closed Landfill Unit at the MPCA.

Councilmembers said they see the need to move on remediation, but questioned the preferred option. "One, we need to do something, and we need to do it soon," said Councilmember Liz Johnson, "but, two, it feels more like a temporary solution rather than a long-term solution."

Councilmember Anne Smith agreed, saying that providing a landfill liner that will keep waste contained for 50 years does not sound like a final solution. "Fifty years is a blink," she said. "A hundred years is a blink."

Councilmember Nicole Park asked questions about the plasma torch system of burning the garbage, and Smith advocated for that solution.

Installing such a burner would take much longer than containing the waste, said MPCA's Peter Tiffany, the senior engineer for the Closed Landfill Section. Also, because the garbage in the landfill is decomposed, it would take a great deal of time and energy to burn it. Mixing it with new waste to produce more energy would only prolong the time it would take to destroy the garbage.

"Why not wait another year to come up with a solution that really works?" asked Councilmember Steve DeLapp, saying that as long as the contamination from the landfill is contained, it won't spread farther in the time it takes to create and pay for a permanent solution.

Jeff Lewis, MPCA's manager of the remediation division, disagreed, saying that the longer a solution is sought, the more contamination will continue moving into the communities' groundwater.

Just how long will the liner in the landfill protect the community from further contamination? councilmembers asked. "There is no absolute answer to your question," Tiffany said. The key is proper installation and monitoring, he said, which should allow the liner to contain the waste in the landfill.

One community resident, Jim Blackford, also spoke, saying that he is also looking for a long-term solution, and this is not it. "The state is supposed to be solving these things, not putting them off," he said.

Toward the end of the conversation, Smith advocated using the dig and truck method, digging up the garbage and removing it from the area to a sealed landfill. "Find a site that is not on top of our water," she said.

Lewis, of the MPCA, said that the state has 47 Superfund sites that need cleaning up, but the Lake Elmo site is unique because of its PFC contaminants. "It's not MPCA's waste that's there," he said in closing. "It's society's waste."

A public information meeting on the options for cleaning the landfill and a public comment period will also be set to collect information. No specific dates have been set for either of those events.

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