In 1988, Minnesota regulators didn't see much risk from burying construction materials, so, they didn't factor into the state's first solid waste rules, written back then.
Thirty years later, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency knows more — construction debris is contaminating groundwater at landfills around the state.
The agency wants tougher regulation, but counties that run many of the landfills are pushing back, arguing the MPCA hasn't justified the need for expensive changes.
"It feels like the county has nowhere to go. We basically pretty much have to accept whatever the agency wants to do," said John Helmers, past president of the Minnesota Solid Waste Administrators Association and director of environmental resources for Olmsted County.
Minnesota has 79 class one demolition landfills in mostly rural areas. The landfills have no liner of impermeable material to protect groundwater from contaminants. There are restrictions on what can be buried — for example, they don't accept treated lumber.
About a quarter of all construction and demolition debris goes into unlined landfills around the state.
Concerns about contamination from the unlined construction and demolition landfills surfaced in the early 2000s. The state started monitoring groundwater near some of those landfills about a dozen years ago. Monitoring at 51 locations found excessive levels of arsenic, manganese or boron at 41 sites.
"A fair number of them, they're actually exceeding the health standards for those pollutants," said MPCA solid waste permitting supervisor Mike Mondloch.
But while the monitoring results show that something is contaminating groundwater near the landfills, they leave important questions unanswered.
"They don't really tell us how big the something is," Mondloch said. "They don't tell us how bad the something is ... or whether it is a really big deal."
Studies analyzing the pollution's significance are expensive and time consuming, and they're just beginning at a couple of landfill sites.
Landfill operators say the MPCA lacks the scientific proof to justify expensive regulatory changes at the unlined demolition landfills.
"We don't want a permit to pollute, that's not what we're about. We're trying to create a valuable public service here to keep our county clean basically, and in the end, it needs to be done with common sense," said Roseau County administrator Jeff Pelowski.
The MPCA started requiring new standards for the demolition landfills in 2015 based on a guidance document published in 2005 after state officials and landfill operators talked about ways to address groundwater concerns. Though the 1988 rules haven't changed, the agency is using its authority to add requirements to individual permits, frustrating local jurisdictions who say navigating the landfill permit process can be expensive and confusing.
Fergus Falls got a permit for a new demolition landfill in 2016, and city engineer Brian Yavarow said it brought sticker shock.
The permit requires the landfill to have a clay liner, and the city must collect water from under the site and treat it for pollutants. That will significantly increase construction and operating costs.
Yavarow said water will need to be pumped and hauled to the city treatment plant during the anticipated 66-year life of the landfill. Local residents and contractors who use the landfill will see a big increase in the rate per cubic yard for construction debris.
"It has effectively went from 15 bucks to 25 bucks," said Yavarow.
Fergus Falls considered fighting the new requirements, but Yavarow said the cost was too high and the MPCA was unwilling to consider changes. Yavarow is worried how residents will respond when the new rates take effect.
"At what point does it cost so much where residents of the community might look to do illicit dumping?" asked Yavarow. "And what that threshold is, we're not quite sure yet."
Local governments think significant changes to regulation should require new state rules and public input. They want the Legislature to take it up this year.
But Mondloch insists the MPCA has authority to expand regulations without a rulemaking process. He agrees the 1988 solid waste rules are past due for an update, but said the agency doesn't have the resources for the lengthy, labor intensive process.
In fact, the MPCA can't even keep up with landfill permit renewals. Data provided by the agency show nearly 70 percent of class one demolition landfill permits are expired, some for more than a decade ago.
Pelowski said if the state simply insists on expensive changes, the county will likely just shut down the operation.
"We would just wash our hands of it because we don't have to do it we're doing it as a public service. Push comes to shove, that's what we'll do. We're not going to spend money for no reason, so that's where we're at. The line's been drawn in the sand."