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At Issue: A costly cleanup

Published (3/7/2008)
By Nick Busse
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Lake Elmo Mayor Dean Johnston testifies before the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance Division Feb. 28 in support of a bill that would provide funding for cleanup of the Washington County Landfill.

If you were to take a map and draw a line starting from the center of the Washington County Landfill and running east, the first thing you’d run into would be Jim Blackford’s house. These days, it’s not such a great location.

“My wife and I had a great place to raise kids,” Blackford said. “But we didn’t know we were drinking tainted water.”

Blackford is one of thousands of Lake Elmo residents and surrounding communities whose drinking water has been contaminated with perfluorochemicals (PFCs), a family of industrial compounds manufactured by the 3M Corporation. The chemicals were produced at a 3M facility in Cottage Grove, and the production waste was dumped more than 30 years ago — legally — in the landfill near Blackford’s home. From there, PFCs leeched into an underground aquifer that supplied Blackford’s private well — and neither he nor anyone else knew about it for decades.

It’s a story familiar to many east metro residents. In fact, since the Pollution Control Agency developed a method to test for PFCs in 2004, the chemicals have been detected not only in private wells like Blackford’s, but municipal wells that supply the entire area. And although the potential health effects of PFCs remain a matter of scientific uncertainty, one thing is certain: those who have been impacted are demanding swift action to remove the chemicals.

“They want to be able to turn on the spigot in their house and have water they can drink … and not worry that it’s not healthy for them, their children, their pets,” said Rep. Denny McNamara (R-Hastings), whose constituents are among the many whose water is contaminated.

Unfortunately for lawmakers, in the case of the Washington County Landfill, the solution has been almost as controversial as the problem. The three other sites chiefly responsible for the east metro contamination — in Cottage Grove, Oakdale and Woodbury — are being cleaned up under an agreement between 3M and the PCA. The Washington County Landfill is different: the state owns the site, which means it has no legal recourse to make 3M pay for the remediation. And while the company has pledged an $8 million “gift” to help clean it up, the taxpayers will have to foot the rest of the bill.

Just how much they’ll have to pay isn’t quite clear.

Few options, limited funding

The PCA investigated six different options for remediation at the Washington County Landfill, ranging from construction of a plasma torch facility to incinerate the waste to filtering the groundwater on site to literally digging up the whole landfill and moving it, truckload-by-truckload, to another location.

The option that the PCA eventually chooses will likely depend on what happens to HF3232, sponsored by Rep. Julie Bunn (DFL-Lake Elmo). The bill would authorize $25 million in revenue bonds for the PCA to clean up the Washington County Landfill and three other high-priority, non-PFC contaminated sites. The measure has been included in the House and Senate omnibus capital investment bills. Gov. Tim Pawlenty is recommending $15 million for the Washington County Landfill only.

The language of Bunn’s proposal leaves it to the PCA to determine how best to clean up the landfill, and asks the commissioner to report back the Legislature early next year on whether more money is needed; however, according to PCA Closed Landfill Program Manager Jeff Lewis, the amount of money provided — and the pressure on the PCA to move as quickly as possible — would likely lead the PCA to opt for a “dig and line” method.

This method, which would involve excavating the waste and placing an impermeable liner underneath it to stop the chemicals from leeching out, is preferred by the PCA for its feasibility and cost-effectiveness; however, opponents worry that the liner won’t last long enough to be worth the money. The plan is expected to cost the state at least $15 million.

“If I understand finance correctly, by the time the bonds are paid off, we will be in a position to address this problem all over again,” said Lake Elmo Mayor Dean Johnston.

Johnston said the Legislature should provide funding for a more permanent solution; however, at a time when the state is already scrounging for extra cash, the more permanent options may not be feasible. An independent consulting firm placed the plasma torch option at more than $192 million, and the “dig and truck” removal option at nearly $67 million.

At a Feb. 19 meeting of the House Drinking Water Source Protection Subcommittee, Bunn stressed the importance of acting fast, whatever the solution.

“From the citizen’s perspective, what’s most important is that we move this along,” she said.

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