Skip to main content Skip to office menu Skip to footer
Minnesota Legislature

Talkin’ trash

Published (3/18/2010)
By Sue Hegarty
Share on: 



A legislative directive that in a state agency’s eyes omitted a word or two is an example of what can go wrong when attempting to carry out the letter of the law.

The fuss began six years ago when perfluorochemicals (PFCs) were found in groundwater that had leaked from a closed Washington County landfill. The City of Lake Elmo had to close 200 household wells and spent $6 million to bring water services to the low-density area.

“My community is really a poster-child for what happens when things go wrong,” Lake Elmo Mayor Dean Johnston said.

In 2008, the Legislature gave the Pollution Control Agency 18 months to write stricter rules about where landfills can be placed and how their owners must provide financial assurances against leaks. The rules are intended to protect groundwater and to ensure that taxpayers are not stuck with hefty cleanup costs.

Stakeholders got a look at the draft rules last summer and began questioning legislative intent. Were the new stricter rules supposed to apply to existing landfills or just new ones?

“There was no question in our mind. We thought the legislation was clear that it directed us to write rules for both existing and new,” said Lisa Thorvig, PCA municipal division director. “It didn’t say the rules were for new solid waste disposal, and generally when we’re directed to write rules that only pertain to new, or new and expanded, there’s some kind of qualifier in the language, and that wasn’t there.”

However, the rules may have created more problems than they sought to address.

“Virtually every existing facility would have an exception, or a variance would be required,” said Mike Robertson, a Minnesota Chamber of Commerce lobbyist. “We think this kind of policy would really be unprecedented. It’s regulating through variance which is bad policy.”

“You’ve got to assume (variances) are going to get turned down,” said Rep. Denny McNamara (R-Hastings).

Rep. Julie Bunn (DFL-Lake Elmo), who worked on drafting the legislation, said it was never the intent to include existing landfills under the new siting rules.

She sponsors HF3367 to clarify the language. As amended, her fix states, “The financial assurance and siting modifications to the rules specified in this bill, when it becomes law, shall not apply to solid waste facilities initially permitted before Jan. 1, 2011, including future contiguous expansions and noncontiguous expansions within 600 yards of a permitted boundary.”

The bill was approved by the House Environment Policy and Oversight Committee March 11 and referred to the House Finance Committee with the recommendation that it be re-referred to the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance Division. A companion, SF3003, sponsored by Sen. Kathy Saltzman (DFL-Woodbury), awaits action by the full Senate.

The second directive, to ensure taxpayers are not stuck with cleanup costs, also produced objections and landfill owners predicted their increased costs would trickle down to the taxpayer anyway.

After a landfill closes, it can be voluntarily turned over to the care of the Pollution Control Agency. Money to maintain closed landfills and to clean up leaky ones comes from a remediation fund. Several entities contribute to the fund, such as a state tax that shows up on homeowner’s garbage bills and financial assurances paid by landfill owners.

Homeowners are assessed a 9.75 percent solid waste tax, while commercial businesses pay 17 percent. Last year, the tax generated $66.1 million. The majority, 70 percent, is used to manage 109 state-owned, closed landfills. The rest goes into the General Fund.

Landfill operators may be required to pay financial assurances for up to 30 years after a landfill closes. According to the draft rules, the PCA seeks authority to extend that responsibility beyond the 30-year cap. Again, stakeholders objected.

“I’ve worked in 25 states and Canada. There’s not been one leachate in a modern-lined facility,” said Fred Doran, an engineer serving seven counties . He said current rules are protective of the environment.

Bunn’s bill would require the PCA to consult with “experts and interested persons on financial assurance adequacy for solid waste facilities … to determine the adequacy of existing financial assurance rules to address environmental risks.”

A 2008 moratorium was placed on new solid waste landfills until the new PCA rules are adopted. With the moratorium still in place, four industrial landfill applicants have either been denied or put on hold during the interim; 63 permits for existing landfills, unaffected by the moratorium, were renewed, according to the PCA.

Session Weekly More...


Session Weekly Home



Related Stories


Doling out resources
Omnibus environment and natural resources law also contains energy provisions
(view full story) Published 6/1/2010

Definitions matter
Language for environment and energy spending called into question
(view full story) Published 5/13/2010

Supplant or supplement?
Some think constitutionally dedicated funds may be filling traditional funding void
(view full story) Published 4/29/2010

Sinking the law on sunken timber
DNR intends to let sleeping logs lie
(view full story) Published 4/29/2010

Minnesota Index: Earth, wind and fire
Figures and statistics on Earth Day and the environment
(view full story) Published 4/15/2010

Minnesota Index: Quality of life
Figures and statistics on Minnesota's quality of life
(view full story) Published 3/25/2010

Talkin’ trash
PCA discovers interpreting the letter of the law isn’t easy
(view full story) Published 3/18/2010

Land wHOa!
Audit suggests DNR has more land than they can manage
(view full story) Published 3/11/2010

Safe Drug Disposal Act
Leftover drugs find their way to fish and teens
(view full story) Published 2/11/2010

At Issue: Money for outdoors, arts gets green light
Legacy bill passes but still needs work
(view full story) Published 5/29/2009

At Issue: Unearthing the state’s past
Legacy bill moves through final process quickly, awaits floor action
(view full story) Published 5/8/2009

At Issue: Funding environment and energy
Conferees make additional spending cuts
(view full story) Published 5/8/2009

First Reading: Wildfire in slow motion
Emerald ash borer ignites prevention policies
(view full story) Published 5/1/2009

At Issue: Animal, vegetable, mineral … or chemical?
Toxic Free Kids Act survives House floor omnibus debate
(view full story) Published 4/24/2009

At Issue: Control-alt-delete
Electronic waste collections called ‘too successful’
(view full story) Published 4/10/2009

Minnesota Index: Extreme weather
Figures and statistics on weather records in Minnesota
(view full story) Published 4/10/2009

At Issue: Spending new proceeds
Lessard Outdoor Heritage Council considers projects for new tax receipts
(view full story) Published 2/6/2009