St. Louis County proposes landfill, treatment campus in Canyon

Commissioners billed the announcement Monday as an alternative to discharging leachate into Lake Superior.

Possible county solid waste facility.
Undeveloped land adjacent to the Waste Management industrial landfill off U.S. Highway 53 outside Canyon, Minnesota, is being proposed by St. Louis County for a new solid-waste campus to solve regional waste issues. The proposed campus would land-apply "forever chemicals," currently found contaminating Lake Superior smelt, and solve the sunsetting of the Superior landfill near the end of the decade.
Brady Slater / Duluth News Tribune
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CANYON — In front of a packed Northland Township Hall filled with union laborers, waste officials and neighborhood residents, St. Louis County’s rural and Iron Range commissioners introduced a long-planned vision Monday for a new, roughly $70 million-$80 million waste management campus to be located nearby.

Calling it the regional answer for a sunsetting landfill in Superior, and a treatment solution for the emerging contaminant PFAS, the four commissioners, led by Keith Nelson, of Fayal Township, met a supportive throng. They shared details for a campus on 800 acres currently home in Canyon to a much smaller Waste Management landfill for demolition and industrial waste.

The proposed facility would be larger and modeled after the county’s Virginia landfill, which serves the northern half of the county and does things such as land-apply pond-treated leachate and heat its recycling building using landfill gas.

“We simply cannot continue to operate with one landfill, to do this and do it right we need to be able to do material recovery. We need to be able to treat leachate,” Nelson said. “The fact of the matter is we’ve got 5 million gallons a year coming out of area landfills being trucked to WLSSD (Western Lake Superior Sanitary District), because it’s the only option people have.”

The announcement comes at a crossroads for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, which hasn’t permitted a new municipal solid-waste landfill since 1993, but is confronting a leachate issue that has resulted in "forever-chemical" contaminants — per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances known as PFAS — being found in the tissue of Lake Superior smelt.


Marianne Bohren, executive director for the WLSSD, was in the audience. Leachate passes through WLSSD’s treatment process, but the facility is not equipped to screen out PFAS.

“We need a project like this,” Bohren said. “We need a mixed municipal waste landfill that is treating for all emerging contaminants.”

proposed landfill site.jpg
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

The commissioners and crowd gathered for a regular meeting of the county’s solid waste and septic committee. Nelson explained how the County Board intends to launch the project. It’s in the process of seeking $20 million from the state Legislature, and will add another $12 million using the county’s American Rescue Plan Act funds aimed at water treatment.

“This project starts out as a leachate treatment project,” Nelson said, later adding: “Once we start building it out, the momentum will carry it forward.”

State Sen. Dave Lislegard, DFL-Aurora, was on hand, having co-authored a letter of support with Sen. David Tomassoni, I-Chisholm, which praised the project for its conceptual solar farm, promise of a zero carbon footprint, and its alternative to discharging leachate into Lake Superior.

“This issue is not going away and we have to have a solution,” Lislegard said. “I am 100% supportive.”

Waste Management officials at the meeting declined to discuss the company’s involvement in the project. Commissioners have included Waste Management as partners throughout years of informal lead-up to Monday’s announcement, which came with the promise of a project labor agreement.

“On a personal level, this is my backyard,” said Andy Campeau, of the Duluth Building Trades. “ I live in Independence. I hunt these woods, and I fish these waters and I do a lot of it. I know this will be done right.”


Last March, the MPCA announced six closed and capped landfills in St. Louis County were emitting PFAS contaminants in excess of state health guidelines into surrounding the ground and nearby wells. Statewide, 98 of 101 capped landfills were found to be PFAS.

The proposed landfill campus would offer a solution to relieve those landfills — many unlined as now required by law — of capacity either entirely, or enough so that liners could be retroactively installed. The proposed landfill campus would include a material recovery center to pull recyclables from the waste stream, along with a recycling facility. An engineered wetland would be used to treat leachate, resulting in clean water for spray irrigation.

It's not easy to raise the proposition of a new landfill. Ask Jack Ezell. "We went through a process back in the 1980s," said Ezell, the longtime manager of planning and technical services for the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District based in ...

“No longer trucking leachate and not treating it, but actually treating it here — that’s the answer,” Nelson said, confident in the county’s ability to secure a landfill permit by citing the studies detrimental to Lake Superior smelt. It's also notable the Superior landfill, which services much of the Arrowhead region, is approaching its sunsetting in 2027.

“This isn't just about St. Louis County, this is about the entire Arrowhead region," Nelson said. "This resource is something that can be used for and by everyone. It's going to take a lot of work to build and energy to maintain, but it is state of the art."

Commissioners and solid waste committee members Mike Jugovich, of Chisholm, Paul McDonald, of Ely, and Keith Musolf, representing Hermantown, Proctor, Rice Lake and rural areas of Duluth, all spoke in favor of the proposal.

Jugovich described it as a way Iron Range can lead on the environment.

“This is how we do it,” he said. “We work together. We include groups that all know their expertise.”

Musolf agreed.


“We often wind up with projects that turn into the environment versus the project, or environment versus economics,” Musolf said. “The excitement about this is that it’s 100% environment.”

Wisconsin DNR says it found high levels of PFAS chemicals in the little fish prized by many for its taste.

Brady Slater is a former reporter for the Duluth News Tribune.
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