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The problem, and politics, of throwing old houses in the garbage

MinnPost file photo by Bill Kelley
Burying construction debris can dredge up naturally-occurring chemicals in the soil like arsenic and manganese that leach into groundwater after precipitation.

For decades in Minnesota, landfills for construction and demolition debris have not been required to use linings that stop toxic pollutants from seeping into groundwater. As the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency tells it, the waste wasn’t considered to be an environmental risk when the landfill rules were first implemented in 1988.

“We really thought that untreated wood, that concrete, the gypsum in your drywall, was inert,” said Courtney Ahlers-Nelson, supervisor of the MPCA’s Land Permits Unit.

That understanding has shifted, especially as construction materials have changed. And now research now shows such unprotected landfills can contaminate groundwater, said Ahlers-Nelson.

That information has prompted the agency to try and beef up its regulations — a possibility some county landfill operators have balked at — and also bolstered a Minneapolis nonprofit that is pushing for tough new rules in the Twin Cities to keep most construction demolition waste from ever reaching a dump.

The problem

Ahlers-Nelson said the MPCA expects to release a comprehensive study this spring on the extent and severity of water problems caused by demolition landfills. But preliminary research from the agency shows why they’re concerned.

An MPCA report from 2017 says Minnesota has 88 landfills without linings that accept construction and demolition waste. Most of those monitor their water for contamination and 63 percent of them found pollution that surpasses state and federal standards, the 2017 report says. Most of the affected landfills are located outside of the Twin Cities metro area. Just a few showed no contamination at all.

Construction waste can pollute groundwater in two different ways. Rain and snow can leach contaminants from construction products like boron and vinyl chloride, which is in PVC material; Also, burying the debris can also dredge up naturally-occurring chemicals in the soil like arsenic and manganese that leach into groundwater after precipitation.

The early MPCA data was part of an effort to persuade state lawmakers to allocate $2 million in the 2018-19 budget to address the problem. The request included measures to fund more research and reduce the effect of pollution on groundwater.

MPCA Spokesman Walker Smith said the proposals weren’t passed, but the MPCA launched research on its own to explore rule changes.

While the MPCA hasn’t unveiled a final proposal yet, Ahlers-Nelson said it’s likely to include some new requirements for construction landfills, including liners. Specific details — like the thickness of necessary liners and how quickly landfill operators have to comply with regulations — are still up for discussion, she said.

construction and demolition landfills
Minnesota Pollution Control Agency
Forty-two construction and demolition landfills in Minnesota have caused groundwater contamination at levels exceeding state and federal standards.

Landfill operator concern

New regulations for construction and demolition landfills are a cause of concern for at least some of those who run them. John Helmers, executive director of the Solid Waste Administrators Association, said for smaller demolition landfills, particularly in rural Minnesota, groundwater protection rules could bring a hefty price tag. If there are higher costs for those dropping off waste, illegal dumping in rural areas could rise, too, Helmers warned.

Roger Schroeder, the environmental administrator for Lyon County in Southwestern Minnesota, said if his government is required to add linings to its demolition landfill, they would simply order all that debris to go to a traditional solid waste landfill in the county that already has a wastewater protection system. But Schroeder noted that option also comes with negatives: lumber and other construction debris is bulky and would fill up the solid waste landfill faster. Plus, fees are to use that landfill are higher, he said.

“I think the downside to the general public is all of the sudden all of these home remodeling costs, the waste disposal costs basically doubles,” Schroeder said.

While Helmers and Schroeder said they wanted to protect groundwater, they also called for an independent study of demolition landfills and pollution, citing concerns they had with some of the MPCA’s conclusions and study methodology.

A better way to demolish buildings?

The debate over how to manage what goes into construction landfills has brought new attention to Better Futures Minnesota, a Minneapolis nonprofit working to keep waste from being thrown away in the first place. The company is working to forward legislation in Minneapolis, St. Paul and St. Louis Park that would fine people who don’t recycle and reuse most materials from certain demolished buildings.

Thomas Adams
Thomas Adams
Better Futures is a local pioneer in the practice of deconstruction, in which workers methodically take down buildings and better preserve the old materials for other uses. “There’s no reason to just go bury a bunch of lumber when you can bring it back and sell it,” said Thomas Adams, president and CEO of Better Futures. “Or throw away windows when someone can reuse them.”

Better Futures employs and trains ex-felons for the job (and for their other business ventures like appliance recycling, custodial services and groundskeeping). Deconstruction creates more jobs than traditional demolition and can spark other businesses that make use of the reused material, Adams said.

Taken together, deconstruction creates “stacked benefits” by reducing carbon emissions that accelerate global warming, creating jobs and bringing people into the workforce who are usually tough to employ, Adams said.

But while the practice brings real benefits, it also comes with real downsides. Traditional demolition can happen in a day or two, but deconstruction on a single-family house can take as much as 12 business days, Adams said. It also costs up to $30,000 for a 1,800 square foot home — about twice as much as standard demolition. Some of that cost can be reduced through tax breaks, but not on public projects.

Adams said his deconstruction business has been reliant on a series of grants from the state’s Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund and other money from city and county grants.

In order to catch up with demolition, Adams said he wants people who don’t deconstruct buildings to pay what he calls the “social costs” of carbon emissions to cities, which is the price of mitigating climate change. Reuse and recycle of construction waste cuts down on emissions in part because of the energy it takes to create new building materials. Adams pegged that carbon cost at roughly $9,000 for a typical house. He said cities should use that money to offer grants to homeowners who can’t pay for deconstruction on their own.

The ambitious proposal has yet to gain much traction in the Twin Cities. But St. Paul Councilwoman Jane Prince has shown interest in the concept, her office said. Adams said Minneapolis Councilman Phillipe Cunningham has also supported the basic idea, although his office said talks over it are currently paused.

There is some precedent for a deconstruction ordinance. It’s already being tried by several cities, including Portland, Milwaukee and Baltimore. In Portland, where a law was passed in 2016, houses built before 1917 must be deconstructed and salvaged. City officials estimate 2,500 tons of demolition waste was diverted from landfills in the program’s first year.

Smith, the MPCA spokesman, said the agency has not been actively working to promote the legislation but supports the goal of more recycling and reuse in Minnesota. Better Futures held a long presentation at a November meeting hosted by the MPCA in West St. Paul aimed at finding ideas to reduce demolition waste.

“I think in general it’s always cheaper to prevent pollution than to manage it or to clean it up so generally we’re supportive of those kinds of things,” Smith said.

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Tom Goldstein on 01/21/2019 - 12:18 pm.

    What’s missing from this article is an entire discussion about the wisdom of allowing demolition to occur with such ease in the first place. While there are certainly times when demolition is the only option for addressing a deteriorated property, the rapid increase in home teardowns is driven by greedy builders seeking to make a quick buck and cities with lax code requirements. The result is the loss of many historic properties and bungalow “starter” homes. Make demolitions a last resort, through strict demolition ordinances, and not only do you help address the problems cited in this article, you also end the negative impacts on neighborhoods caused by McMansions supplanting the existing housing stock. The greenest home is the one still standing.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/22/2019 - 03:53 am.

      The problem, of course, is that purported historic preservation and environment concerns are often just a cover for NIMBYism. The greedy ones aren’t the developers – its the people who want to maintain single family homes in cities where there is a desperate need for additional housing units.

      • Submitted by marcia anderson on 01/23/2019 - 12:25 am.

        Replacing a single-family starter home with a single family McMansion does nothing to increase housing availability; in fact, it simply depletes the number of starter homes. And as the first comment and this article clearly describe, the existing home is the least expensive, and the most sustainable. That can be true as long as homeowners are incentivized and in some cases supported to keep the home maintained, keep its energy envelope secure, etc. Those are the kinds of measures that Minneapolis or any city should develop that could help low to moderate-income people preserve and afford existing homes. Expansion of affordable housing will need more targeted zoning and development incentives, ideally in locations that make sense for neighborhoods, rather than for developers to make money.

        • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/23/2019 - 10:53 am.

          If this was solely about replacing well-maintained starter homes with “McMansions” that would be one thing. But the reality is something different.

          The same type of objections are raised when single-family homes are going to be replaced by multi-family housing, in which case the housing would increase housing availability and sustainability. I used the word “purported” in my original comment because the claims being made in opposition are not sincere.

          And many starter homes are torn down because they were not well maintained, or otherwise just wore out. There was a house near me that had been vacant for years. It was very run-down and apparently had significant water and foundation issues. Yet, there were some in the neighborhood who vigorously opposed the teardown. As it turns out, the lot was big enough to build two “McMansions”, meaning that space went from housing zero households to housing two.

          There is also an over-romanticization of the older free-standing single-family starter home. Even if well-maintained and updated (which again, they often are not), older homes are far less energy efficient than newer homes. Depending on when they were built, the houses may be full of lead and asbestos, creating hazards for the occupants. Its an ideal that just does not mesh well with reality.

  2. Submitted by Elaine Frankowski on 01/21/2019 - 12:51 pm.

    The article states that ” It also costs up to $30,000 for a 1,800 square foot home — about twice as much as standard demolition.” Translation: It costs about twice as much for the planet to remain habitable for our descendants as it does to make the planet difficult for humans, animals and plants to live on. Of course it’s going to cost more to fight pollution than to pollute merrily along. And this generation will bear the pollution prevention costs instead of kicking them down to our descendants who will shoulder both the results of our pollution and the cleanup costs.

    • Submitted by Matthew Steele on 01/22/2019 - 12:56 pm.

      Such an analysis also needs to account for opportunity costs. Additional expenses for redevelopment and land use intensification necessarily creates a decrease in new units and a decrease in housing supply. And every new unit that doesn’t get built in a walkable, well-connected urban neighborhoods means a unit gets pushed out into the automobile-only sprawlscape via greenfield development. If $15,000 in added demolition costs prevent numerous new infill housing units to be generated, then the environmental implication of such an outcome could likely be worse (and possibly by orders of magnitude in a lifecycle view) in comparison.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/21/2019 - 06:35 pm.

    Salvage and re-use of materials in construction ought to be the default mode of operation rather than something regarded as either innovative or annoying, depending upon who’s being asked.

  4. Submitted by Joe Musich on 01/21/2019 - 09:00 pm.

    So we have had some buildings come down also. I am thinking in the Uptown of Minneapolis in particular. What accomadtion for recycling are made for retail and commercial buildings ?

  5. Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 01/23/2019 - 07:44 am.

    If we taxed pollution, deconstruction would be “economical”. But that is heresy to a generation intent on passing pollution costs onto future generations, and the belief that a waste-based consumerism has no alternative.

    If we taxed pollution and automation, we could reduce income and small business taxes. But again, this generation is intent on giving corp, bank and billionaire every advantage, while treating the small business and working people like they don’t really matter.

  6. Submitted by Bill Mantis on 01/23/2019 - 03:02 pm.

    It looks like there needs to be a volunteer organization like Habitat For Humanity that de-constructs buildings in an environmentally friendly manner. In fact, maybe Habitat should expand its operations to include such a service. It would be an excellent revenue-raising opportunity.

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