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Andover reckons with past pollution as landfill’s hazardous waste cleanup begins

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Ventilation units filter the air from a temporary shelter covering a hazardous waste pit.
Ventilation units filter the air from a temporary shelter covering a hazardous waste pit at the Andover landfill Tuesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Julie Trude remembers watching deer graze on the opposite side of the fence that separated a shuttered landfill from the park in Andover where she would take her children to play. When her son got a little older, his school science class did a cleanup project in Coon Creek, just north of the site.

“Then we learned that probably wasn’t a good idea,” Trude said Tuesday as she stood alongside lawmakers and state officials to mark a major hazardous waste cleanup project at the closed Waste Disposal Engineering landfill.

Trude, now Andover’s mayor, has learned a lot about the landfill in subsequent years. She said monitoring wells have shown no signs of anything hazardous in the creek. Harmful chemicals haven’t reached city or private drinking water wells, either, she said.

Julie Trude, right, speaks into a microphone next to Tim Walz outside.
Andover Mayor Julie Trude, right, speaks at a press conference alongside Gov. Tim Walz at the closed Andover landfill Tuesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Still, Trude will feel a lot better at the end of this year, when all the hazardous waste — paint sludge, solvents, oil — that was dumped in a pit on the site in the early 1970s is expected to be removed. It comes as part of a $22 million project funded through state bonds.

“It provides many of us peace of mind,” she said.

The state allowed hazardous wastes to be dumped at the landfill between 1972 and 1974. Back then, the area was known as Grow Township and “was out in the middle of nowhere,” Trude said. The village of Andover wasn’t established until 1972. The landfill closed a decade later.

Today, the landfill site is surrounded by homes and ball fields, and the city of Andover is a growing Anoka County suburb just north of the Twin Cities. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 30,000 people lived there in 2010 — compared to 15,000 in 1990.

For all those reasons, removing the hazardous part of the landfill makes sense, Trude said.

“When you look at housing in the Twin Cities, we have a shortage, so we want all the communities that can develop to be safe places for families to locate,” she said.

Removing the hazardous waste

Removing the 1970s-era hazardous waste pit is a giant undertaking.

So far, the process to remove the waste has involved countless meetings among state officials, local officials and experts to figure out the best course of action. Once they came up with a plan, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and local leaders had to persuade the Legislature to commit the last $10.3 million needed for the $22.3 million project.

That last step happened early in this year’s legislative session. The measure gained support from members of both parties and was one of the first two bills Gov. Tim Walz signed.

Cliff Shierk stands in front of a large tent-like structure.
Minnesota Pollution Control Agency engineer Cliff Shierk discusses the cleanup of the Andover landfill's hazardous waste pit Tuesday, a project which he is leading.
Evan Frost | MPR News

In April, crews started getting the cleanup job ready.

They’ve almost finished setting up a temporary, 60,000-square-foot building over the hazardous waste pit that will help trap any harmful vapors released during excavation, said Cliff Shierk, the MPCA engineer overseeing the project. The landfill already has systems that capture vapors and pump and treat groundwater, but unearthing the hazardous waste requires the extra precautions.

“We’ve looked at all the documentation they had, and there are about 6,600 barrels of hazardous waste: paint sludges, solvents, oils, those sorts of things,” he said.

Shierk said leaving the hazardous waste in place poses too much of a risk to the community. Testing has shown that it hasn’t polluted Andover’s drinking water supply, but officials are concerned that, as long as the hazardous waste is contained there, the risk of pollution remains.

The contaminants of concern at the Andover site include:

  • Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, which are often associated with gasoline and other chemicals with a strong odor. VOCs have been linked to a range of health concerns, including cancer and liver problems.

  • Polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs, which were used in products like power transformers. The chemicals have been linked to a range of health problems, including cancer, birth defects and liver problems, according to the EPA.

After crews dig up the drums of waste, they’ll be taken by train to incinerators out of state, Shierk said. Clean Harbors, a waste management company that’s among the project’s contractors, has incinerators in places like Arkansas, Texas and Oklahoma with special emissions equipment built to handle this type of waste.

Large pile of trash in the foreground, then trees.
Exposed trash sits on the side of a hill at the Andover landfill Tuesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

In all, an estimated 11,000 tons of hazardous soil and up to 41 tons of hazardous liquid will be removed from the site, MPCA officials said. The rest of the retired landfill will remain in place.

The last step in cleaning up the hazardous waste pit will be to fill it with clean soil, and then the MPCA will continue to monitor and maintain the site. Part of that maintenance includes capturing and flaring — burning off — methane, a greenhouse gas.

The Andover landfill is among more than 100 landfills across the state the MPCA monitors and maintains as part of the 1994 Landfill Cleanup Act.

For MPCA Commissioner Laura Bishop, the costly cleanup is a reminder that the state must keep working to generate less waste in the first place.

“There really is no ‘away’ when you throw things away. It ends up here,” she said.