Garbage. With modern technology and industry, we can throw it away and be done with it. How many people keep track of the number of candy wrappers that they have disposed of throughout their life? No one.

While trash is the proverbial “out of sight, out of mind” for most Americans, it can still have a large impact on them even after it has been taken to the curb and loaded into the garbage truck.

Goodhue County spends taxpayer money on its landfills every year. The county currently pays about $65,000 annually to maintain and monitor the Bench Street Landfill, according to Public Works Director Greg Isakson. This sum covers everything from water testing — to ensure that the landfill isn’t leaking into the county’s drinking water — to maintaining the grass that has grown on and around the closed landfill.

While $65,000 is more than the average annual income for a Goodhue County resident, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, it is only about 1% of the county’s budget. This, however, could change.

The actual cost of cleaning the Bench Street Landfill is unknown. In the 1990s, the Winona County Landfill was cleaned. According to Isakson, “The state has paid $14 million plus $500,000 per year to cleanup a similar landfill in Winona.”

Goodhue County and Red Wing officials are currently using $14 million as an estimate for the possible cleanup of Bench Street Landfill due to the Winona’s cost. However, they also point out that the local cleanup project would be more than 20 years later than Winona’s, so the cost could be much greater.

Like Winona, Goodhue County would have to pay to maintain the landfill once it is closed. The estimate for this maintenance is $500,000 though this, too, could be higher.

A bill of $14.5 million would be about 21.7% of the county’s 2019 budget.

To avoid local taxpayers bearing the full cost of cleaning the Bench Street Landfill, county and city employees have worked to enter the landfill into the state’s Closed Landfill Program.

Closed Landfill Program

In 1994, Minnesota created the Landfill Cleanup Act to help close and monitor municipal landfills. Once a landfill is entered into the Closed Landfill Program, the state monitors the environmental, health and safety impact. The state also determines the risk each site poses and decides what actions need to be taken — and bears the costs.

Landfills can only enter the program if they meet certain requirements. For example, the Bench Street Landfill had to stop accepting waste by Jan. 1, 2019, be located in a county that meets all recycling goals outlined in the Minnesota statutes, and arrange for a solid waste facility — Red Wing Solid Waste Campus — to accept all waste generated in the county for 20 years or more.

If the Bench Street Landfill were entered into the Closed Landfill Program, the city and county would be relieved of liability from leaks, etc. The state also would take the financial responsibility of mitigation.

According to Isakson it would cost the county about $3 million to enter the Closed Landfill Program.

As of now, the country owns the solid waste portion of Bench Street and the city owns the ash landfill section. Meaning, that if the landfill needs to be cleaned, the city and county would be responsible for covering the entire cost of the cleaning project.

Even if the landfill is entered into the program, the two local governments will still face costs in the near future related to the landfill. For example, before the Bench Street site could be entered into the Closed Landfill Program, the ash landfill will need to be closed.

In May 2019, Red Wing staff released a request for bids to close the ash disposal facility. Two bids were received. One bid was about $1.02 million and the other was $1.42 million. Both bids were more than 40% over the city’s estimated bid. Staff hopes that re-releasing the request for proposals in December 2019 will result in lower bids.

Along with spending money to close the ash landfill, Red Wing is in the process of building a solid waste processing plant that costs about $11 million. According to Rick Moskwa, Red Wing Public Works director, local aid and grants will cover about $5 million while $6 million will be covered by a general obligation bond.

Fees to cover bond

The solid waste facility will collect a “tipping fee” whenever a truck unloads in the facility. This fee will go toward the bond. The local governments are still negotiating a tipping fee with local haulers. Until a tipping fee is finalized, the average cost to county residents to have their trash carted away is unknown.

Rick Moskwa
Rick Moskwa

“Now, we do have an agreement with the county that states, you know, if our revenues don’t exceed our expenses that we’d have to raise the tip fee,” Moskwa explained to Red Wing City Council at the June 24 meeting. “So, we go six months, we go a year, that tip fee is going up because if we don’t get the waste, the total tons that we need, then, you know, we’re going to have expenditures over revenue.”

Anatomy of a modern landfill

Leachate is the liquid that forms when water comes into contact with garbage and dissolves various chemicals. Rainwater percolates through landfills creating this toxic liquid, which can leak and make its way into groundwater.

Prior to the 1970s most solid waste was disposed of in unlined landfills, which are more vulnerable to leakage. In the 1980s and 1990s, federal and state regulations started requiring landfills to be lined and leachate collection and removal systems to be installed. Modern landfills are lined with a layer of flexible plastic and a layer of clay to prevent leachate from leaking. Although liners help prevent contamination they will inevitably leak. The U.S.

Environmental Protection Agency has concluded that all landfills at some point will leak.

Bench Street Landfill is an unlined landfill and it is leaking.

Goodhue County Commissioner Paul Drotos and the city’s former environmental officer stated during the county’s Jan. 8 meeting:

“So yes, do I think it will leak? Well, if it’s leaking it will continue to leak as long as it continues to rain. So, in my opinion, again, in my opinion, speaking as someone who has been in the field, I would say that the odds are very strong that it will continue to leak.”

Contaminants of emerging concern

Landfills contain a variety of toxins including medications, micro plastics and other household chemicals. Contaminants of emerging concern, or CECs, are chemicals that have not been fully evaluated for the risks they pose to human health, wildlife and the environment.

CECs can be found in various environments but pose a special threat to aquatic environments. Some of these contaminants can be traced to landfills.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency reports that pollutants can disrupt the endocrine system of aquatic life by mimicking the effect of hormones. These chemicals can have negative physiological effects including changes to the organism’s growth and reproductive system.

However, it is still mostly unknown to what extent these chemicals impact their environment. This makes it difficult to understand how much of a threat different types of chemicals pose. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is finding ways to measure the risks associated with CECs, by using aquatic toxicity profiles. These profiles can be used to prioritize various contaminants for monitoring and determine which contaminants might be a candidate for pollution prevention.

Conclusions

  • The cost to clean up Red Wing’s Bench Street Landfill is unknown.

  • Because landfills are a source of CECs there is uncertainty about future mitigation plans.

  • Future regulations and testing of these chemicals could increase cleanup costs.

  • In addition, it is unknown how long this particular landfill will take to clean up.

It is not known when and why the Bench Street Landfill will be mandated to be cleaned. Nor is it known what municipality will have control over the landfill when it is cleaned.

What is known is that the landfill is leaking, that it will continue to leak, and that it will cost millions of dollars to clean.