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Minnesota's largest open landfill is poised to get even bigger as the state looks for places to stash the metro's ever-growing amount of trash.

Plans call for Pine Bend landfill in southeastern Inver Grove Heights to pile its mountain of garbage even higher — up another 85 feet or around seven stories.

With the added space, the landfill could take in another 2.4 million tons of trash in the next two decades and help the state avoid having to find another place to put all that waste.

Once the piles are that big, the slope will be too steep for garbage trucks to maneuver and add more trash at the top.

"This will be our last vertical expansion," said Aaron Janusz, an environmental manager for Republic, the Arizona-based company that owns Pine Bend. "We're all out of room."

It's a similar story elsewhere in the south metro. Pine Bend is one of four landfills the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) recommended for growth in 2021. The Burnsville Sanitary Landfill went through the permitting process for adding a decade's worth of trash last year. The MPCA has recommended expansion of the Dem-Con landfill in Shakopee and Rich Valley, another Inver Grove Heights landfill. Both would begin taking household waste.

The MPCA has released two items necessary for the Pine Bend expansion — a draft air permit and an environmental review, and residents can comment on them through Dec. 15. The solid waste permit likely will be released early next year. The agency will respond to all comments and determine if additional environmental review is warranted.

The Metropolitan Council, Dakota County and Inver Grove Heights must sign off before the landfill can grow.

Why so much trash?

The metro area produces about one ton of trash per resident each year, despite MPCA goals to increase the amount we recycle, plus compost and reduce how much we throw away. The agency projects that the amount of waste generated in the metro will grow by 19% over the next two decades.

The region sent 30% more waste to landfills last year, largely due to the closure of the Great River Energy facility in Elk River, which burned trash to create energy, MPCA officials said.

Pine Bend receives waste from the metro and greater Minnesota and some from Wisconsin. Its current capacity is 33.9 million cubic yards. The expansion would enable it to hold 42.1 million cubic yards. The landfill site is 255 acres but it will only add height over 89 acres in the middle of the property.

Residents' concerns

About 30 people attended an MPCA public open house at an Eagan church Thursday. More than half were from the state, the city or Republic. A small but vocal handful of residents asked questions and voiced concerns about the expansion.

"That thing's been open since 1972, and we're still burying waste," said John Rutz, an Inver Grove Heights resident. "That, to me, is not right."

Rutz said it was aggravating that no alternatives were being considered. He wants the state to try to get all the recyclables out of the trash before it heads to the landfill.

George Fell, another resident, compared the MPCA's efforts to share information about the expansion with the Inver Grove Heights school district's communication about a recent referendum. He got four pieces of mail from the schools, he said, compared with one MPCA release.

"Nobody has a clue about this expansion you're talking about," Fell said.

He said he's especially worried about PFAS — per-and poly fluoroalkyl substances, also known as "forever chemicals" — getting into drinking water from leachate, or contaminated liquid collected from landfills.

"Our big concern is water and groundwater," said Megen Kabele a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency project manager for the environmental review unit.

The landfill isn't in a protection area for wells and groundwater, she said. Leachate will be collected by systems already in place, and new well heads will capture and transport methane to the adjacent renewable natural gas plant.

Groundwater monitoring will continue; an existing liner is in place in parts and a new liner will be added. Sampling of 22 wells on site for PFAS and other contaminants is ongoing, Kabele said.

Recent sampling shows PFAS are at or above allowed levels at 12 wells and two springs; long-term testing shows a decrease of PFAS at some wells and an increase at others.

"Pine Bend Landfill follows all of the requirements of our solid waste permit related to groundwater monitoring," said Melissa Quillard, a Republic spokesperson, who noted that contaminated liquid is collected and transported to a wastewater treatment plant.

The city's view

Inver Grove Heights, which eventually must approve four items for the expansion to occur, submitted several comments.

City Administrator Kris Wilson said the city wants more information about what the new mound of trash will look like and has some technical questions about the required air permit.

"We're really hoping to gain a better understanding of whether the expansion would change groundwater or subsurface gas [impacts]," Wilson said.

The city, also home to Rich Valley and Dawnway landfills, which take demolition and construction waste, has developed "a positive working relationship" with the landfill owners. Still, the city has concerns about how the metro area is disposing of its waste, she said.

Though the MPCA says landfilling is the least desirable way to get rid of trash, we still produce more waste than other methods — like recycling or turning waste into energy — can handle, Wilson said.

"[The landfill] definitely has impacts on a host community like Inver Grove Heights," Wilson said, mentioning added traffic, odor and noise, along with visual and groundwater effects. "It impacts the desirability of developing the land next to the landfill."

Long-term plans

The state is now finalizing its metropolitan solid waste policy plan, which is updated every six years. The draft plan, released this summer, restated the Legislature's goal of recycling 75% of Minnesota's trash by 2030, with just 5% going to landfills. The remaining 20% would go to waste-to-energy facilities.

But trends are going in the wrong direction, MPCA officials have said, with the seven-county metro area only recycling about 45% of its waste, including composting.