Garbage In, Garbage--Still In

FIVE YEARS AGO, residents of Hopkins's Westbrooke Townhomes, one of the largest condo developments in the state, got a rude awakening when they found out their homes had been built next to an old landfill that was leaking explosive methane gas. State lawmakers eventually handed out $1.3 million in cleanup funding, which was used to install a liner around the landfill, as well as monitoring wells and methane detectors.

Much legal and political wrangling followed, as the cleanup project ran over budget (the sum eventually came to $2.5 million, not counting legal fees); some of that was made up with money from another state appropriation. And only two years after bulldozers tore up the soil in front of families' patios, the state-of-the-art containment system was confirmed to be leaking methane again. No one is quite sure yet what happened. Chances are, according to Minnesota Pollution Control Agency engineer Peter Tiffany, that the liner (basically a plastic sheet) started to rip even as it was being laid in. What's more, officials--who had steadfastly maintained that all the garbage was well outside the town houses--found themselves forced to admit that the landfill actually extended right under the Westbrooke property.

Adeline Kirkwood guessed as much all along. She says one of her neighbors was trying to dig a garden a couple of years ago when her spade hit a buried car. Kirkwood, who's 78 and has been living in her town house for 21 years, doesn't want to move, but she says she's not looking forward to spending yet another summer closing her windows against dust, smell, and noise. MPCA officials say they don't expect too much hassle from this year's project. They also say they've changed their cleanup philosophy, now requiring a system that sinks pipes into the landfill and burns off the methane at the top.

One key remaining question is who will pay for this latest phase of the Hopkins saga. Leslie Davis, whose Earth Protector group has been dogging officials about the matter for years, says the landfill's former industrial users should be hit up along with the contractor who put in the failed containment system. A spokesman for that company, Ames Construction, declined to comment. State law caps the city's contribution at $400,000 (by virtue of a law passed to avoid mass municipal bankruptcies, since almost every city has at least one old landfill somewhere), which has already been spent. Thus, state taxpayers will be on the hook again for more than $700,000--and that's assuming this is the last time they have to dig up the dump.

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