A controversial plan to expand the Burnsville Sanitary Landfill by millions of tons — creating a mountain of trash taller than U.S. Bank Stadium — is not expected to affect groundwater or air quality, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency says.
The plan from Texas-based Waste Management, the nation's largest trash company, would raise the landfill's height by 262 feet and shrink its footprint from 216 acres to 204. The expansion would accommodate an additional 23 million cubic yards of household waste — about 22 million tons — and extend its life to 2062.
According to a recently released environmental review from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), the agency does not anticipate the expansion to contaminate the groundwater or air. But the landfill is expected to produce 86,542 tons of new greenhouse gas emissions a year — the equivalent of 18,800 passenger vehicles.
The MPCA review also noted the project's appearance.
"Visual impacts, of course, were huge to people," said Steve Sommer, a principal planner with the MPCA. "People were very concerned about it."
Waste Management said in a statement that the company is "grateful for the work of the MPCA and the other environmental experts for their efforts on this project."
The MPCA's findings cleared the way for a final public comment period and coincide with the ongoing permitting process. The project requires about a dozen permits from the state, city and Department of Natural Resources (DNR), among others.
The Burnsville City Council approved the concept-stage landfill expansion plan more than two years ago. As long as Waste Management's final plan follows that one, the city will likely approve it, said Public Works Director Ryan Peterson.
Peterson said the city will be "paying very close attention" to the permitting process, especially as it relates to protecting groundwater.
"That's very important to us," he said.
Landfilling is the MPCA's least-preferred way to dispose of garbage — along with incineration — but agency officials have said recently that they are running out of capacity.
The MPCA this summer recommended that four metro-area Twin Cities landfills be allowed to expand. The agency has also set a goal of recycling 75% of the metro area's waste — both traditional recycle material and organics — by 2030.
Across the river in Bloomington, city leaders and residents have raised concerns about possible noise, odor, aesthetics and water pollution problems that expansion of the nearby Burnsville landfill might bring.
"The proposed placement of 21.9 million tons of additional waste in a floodplain adjacent to the Minnesota River is of great concern," said Glen Markegard, Bloomington planning manager.
More troubling is that portions of the landfill are unlined and the water table already interacts with the garbage during floods, he said. Markegard added that the water table will eventually rise when a nearby quarry stops operating.
In its environmental review, the MPCA acknowledged that risk but said more information will be gathered about the ultimate impact in coming years, Sommer said.
Bloomington officials were "shocked" at the amount of greenhouse gases the expanded landfill would emit and said its height would make it the "defining visual feature in the area," Markegard said.
Sommer said the MPCA can only quantify the amount of greenhouse gases the landfill will produce but cannot "make a judgment call on whether it's a big deal or not a big deal." The millions of tons of trash will produce the same amount of greenhouse gases no matter where it is buried, he said.
John Linc Stine, former MPCA commissioner and executive director of the Freshwater environmental group, said "there's no such thing as a risk-free landfill" when it comes to groundwater.
New toxins and risks to humans are constantly coming to light, he said. As an example, Stine pointed to the growing awareness of the danger posed by PFAS.
The MPCA's environmental review stipulates that the Burnsville landfill update its groundwater sampling and analysis plan during the permitting process to evaluate PFAS and 1,4-dioxane, a likely carcinogen also found in groundwater in some parts of the metro.
Stine noted that when the MPCA analyzed the composition of garbage going into the existing landfill, about half was organics and 20% was recyclable. People don't consider where garbage goes when they throw it away, he said.
"We need to make smarter choices," he said.