MPCA rings alarm: Old landfills leaking contaminants in Northland, across state

The "forever chemicals" have been found in high levels at closed landfills in Duluth, Ely and in 96 other sites across the state, said the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency on Thursday.

A compactor and bulldozer crush and spread the garbage left at the Rice Lake Sanitary Landfill on Oct. 17, 2000. The landfill has since been capped. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency reported in March 2021 that groundwater at the landfill shows per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances contamination at 10 times the health guidelines. (Bob King / News Tribune)

Six closed and capped landfills in St. Louis County, along with scores of others across the state, are emitting “forever chemical” contaminants in excess of state health guidelines, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency announced Thursday.

Groundwater at 97% of the state's closed landfills, 98 of 101, shows per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances contamination — some 10 times the health guidelines, which is the case with the capped Rice Lake landfill near the Duluth International Airport.

One case in south-central Minnesota shows PFAS levels in groundwater more than 1,300 times the state’s guidance.

Many of the legacy landfills are unlined — a requirement of landfill operation today. Outside Ely, at the Northwoods closed landfill, an on-site drinking water well was found to exceed accepted levels for PFAS, and workers there are supplied bottled water. But the state has yet to test three other wells within a mile of the facility.



In a news conference Thursday, pollution control officials called on the Minnesota Legislature to provide the agency access to millions of dollars in closed landfill funding for further testing and better understanding of the acuity of the problems at each location.

“The MPCA has found PFAS contamination in almost every closed landfill it oversees,” MPCA Commissioner Laura Bishop said. “Once again, our assessments tell us that PFAS is everywhere in our environment. That’s why the agency needs the ability to use dedicated funds more flexibly to rapidly respond to these urgent contamination incidents.”

PFAS have been around for several decades and are an enormous family of human-made chemicals used in grease-resistant food wrappings, clothing, medicine, nonstick coatings, carpeting, firefighting foam and myriad other goods and manufacturing processes.

Capped landfills are flush with waste containing PFAS, which are designed not to break down or stick to anything. As such, PFAS move quickly through standing water and can travel long distances.

“The MPCA’s announcement is very concerning, but unfortunately not surprising,” said Deanna White, state director for Clean Water Action and director for the Healthy Legacy Coalition. “As the rest of the product breaks down in the landfill, the PFAS chemicals are released into the environment threatening our soil and our water.”

When built up in the human body, the substances are increasingly known to have a variety of adverse health effects, including high cholesterol, low birth weights and cancer, says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s PFAS profile.

Leachate from some of the closed landfills is trucked and introduced into wastewater treatment plants that don’t have processes capable of removing the contaminants.


In Duluth, 5 million gallons of leachate is discharged into Lake Superior every year through the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District. Earlier this year, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources advised only one meal per month of rainbow smelt due to high levels of PFAS detected in fish tested along Lake Superior's South Shore .

The state’s urgency surrounding PFAS comes after many years of isolating the problem to the east Twin Cities metropolitan area. According to a Minnesota Public Radio report this year, two of the most widely known PFAS compounds — PFOA and PFOS — were manufactured by 3M in Minnesota for decades. The chemicals were discovered in the drinking water supplies of the east Twin Cities metro in the early 2000s. The state settled a lawsuit against 3M over the contamination in 2018 after the company agreed to pay $850 million, MPR said.

Earlier this year, the state issued its first statewide PFAS guidance , an alarm bell culminating 20 years of suspicion of PFAS as a contaminant.

Now, the MPCA wants access, when needed, to some $87 million worth of funds previously dedicated to the care for the state’s legacy landfills, the Closed Landfill Investment Fund, or CLIF. Capped landfills require decades of monitoring . The state's closed landfill fund had been created to cover $277.6 million in care costs over 30 years. PFAS contamination was not even a consideration when the fund was created in 1999.

The prospect of raiding the fund didn’t sit easily with Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-St. Paul, who gave wavering support to the idea, while positing it would be better to ask for access to 3M settlement funds as an alternative.

“This is an unanticipated problem, and I’m concerned that when we open up the CLIF that we drain it too quickly,” he said during the MPCA press conference.

Hansen called for preventative measures, meaning getting PFAS out of the supply stream. As ubiquitous as the valued chemicals are, removing PFAS would present a monumental challenge, requiring the MPCA to gain the attention of more lawmakers. Gov. Tim Walz has $1.6 million in his prospective budget toward identifying the sources of PFAS, sampling fish, and researching PFAS in wastewater and landfill leachate.

“PFAS is coming at us from a variety of directions," Hansen said. "We have to look at not making the problem worse, and how we look at these legacy issues."

What To Read Next
The system crashed earlier this month, grounding flights across the U.S.