From Minneapolis, With Love

Hennepin County wants to dump its incinerator ash in the metro's "environmental Bermuda triangle"

Driving east on Highway 55 is a tutorial in suburban history. Progress has come in spastic leaps along this state route. Homes well past their golden anniversaries abut modern office complexes and SuperAmerica stations. An apple orchard is still closed for the season near the rustic '60s-style Pine Bend Motel. Ferrellgas and Freightliner facilities compete for space with fields of corn and soybeans. Just inside the Rosemount city line, the road narrows to two lanes, and as the daylight dims, the lights at the Koch Refinery make the industrial complex look like a futuristic Emerald City. On a breezy day, the plant's smell of foul egg and burned rubber drifts for miles.

A few miles and a couple of farm fields down the road from Koch, a right turn leads into the driveway of Laidlaw Environmental Services. A chain-link fence tops a grassy berm running the perimeter of the industrial-waste dump's 236 acres. A red, white, and blue sign directs visitors to a squat, bunkerlike office building at the end of the winding approach. In the distance a pile of sand pocked with discarded tires and pieces of black rubber towers above the road. That's the first of Laidlaw's "cells"--literally a plastic-lined hole into which industrial waste is dumped. Nearby, a square chasm some 20 feet deep sits waiting for its liner.

If Hennepin County officials and Laidlaw Environmental Services have their way, this hole will soon become the solution to a near decade-old waste disposal headache. On Tuesday, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency issued a permit to Laidlaw to begin accepting some 90,000 pounds of heavy-metal-laden ash each year from the county's garbage incinerator in Minneapolis. But the environmental group Earth Protector and an association of Rosemount residents called the Concerned Citizen's Group say they'll keep fighting the permit. They say it violates the MPCA's own rules, disregards the potential for toxic leaks at the site, and adds one more worry to an area that already contends with 54 polluters in a 5-mile radius. "There's a lot of people who seem to think we're the biggest dumping ground in the state of Minnesota," charges Myron Napper, a member of the Rosemount group.

The problem of ash disposal has been vexing Hennepin County ever since it opened the garbage incinerator in 1989. At the time, says Janet Leick, the county's director of environmental services, the MPCA was still in the process of writing the rules for incinerator ash storage facilities, and as a result no landfill in the state accepted the Hennepin burner's annual 90,000 tons of ash. For a while the county sent its ash to a landfill in Illinois, then it switched to a Laidlaw facility in North Dakota. A Browning-Ferris Industries dump in Wisconsin has also taken some of the county's ash.

In 1994, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that incinerator ash did not qualify as hazardous waste, thus allowing industrial-waste dumps like Laidlaw-Rosemount to accept it. A year later, Laidlaw put in the lowest bid for the Hennepin ash-disposal contract, offering to save the county some $10 million over the next 5 years.

As dumps go, the Laidlaw Environmental Services facility is state of the art. Opened in 1992, the site has the latest in pollution-control technology. Two thick liners made from a special plastic protect groundwater from pollutants which might leach out as rainwater travels through waste in the landfill. A sump system collects the runoff, which is pumped out and stored in one of three tanks. If tests show the water to be within legal contamination limits, it is then flushed to the Rosemount Wastewater Treatment Plant. Groundwater-monitoring pipes are scattered throughout the property to detect any leaks, and each tank is surrounded by a concrete containment barrier. In short, insist site managers, all contingencies are covered.

"This is really an overbuilt facility," says Don Chapdelaine, a consultant who has worked with the owners of the dump since it opened. "We're the standard-bearer in the industrial-waste industry. It's one reason we've moved through the [MPCA] process expeditiously even though this is a controversial issue."

But Leslie Davis, president of Earth Protector and a critic of the garbage incinerator for more than a decade, says Laidlaw is a leak waiting to happen. "Oh, they've got two liners, so it might take a longer period of time," Davis scoffs. "But in the end it's really just a test."

Site engineer Mike Fullerton concedes that "over some period of time, that's true--eventually it's going to leak. [But] we're looking at thousands of years, probably." Fullerton says the material used in the two liners is so new, it has never been tested in real time in the field. But lab tests "showed the material could last 300 to 400 years."

Leaks aside, Davis asserts, the MPCA left out a number of key questions when it conducted an environmental study on Laidlaw's proposal. The MPCA's Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement didn't even list the amounts of heavy metals in the ash, Davis says; the information was only disclosed after Earth Protector sued the MPCA to stop the permit process. The data show that the 90,000 tons of ash Laidlaw wants to bury annually contain almost 15,000 pounds of cadmium, 250,000 pounds of lead, and more than 1,000 pounds of mercury.

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