Big money and policy changes needed before trash incinerator can close

Hennepin County needs to dramatically change how it deals with solid waste if leaders are going to close a controversial trash incinerator and not send more garbage to landfills.

That was the takeaway from a 39-page briefing on "reinventing the county's solid waste system" presented Thursday in response to a unanimous resolution from the County Board in October asking what it would take to close the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center (HERC). The incinerator on the edge of downtown Minneapolis burns about half of residents' trash and commissioners want to close it before 2040.

"What I'm hearing today is that 2028 to 2040 is not realistic. Let's make it realistic," said Commissioner Angela Conley, one of several board members who pushed to close the HERC. "We have to take bold action."

Conley and other commissioners noted the detailed strategy outlined by staff. It laid out hundreds of millions of dollars in new spending and ambitious state and local policy changes needed to meet the county's goal of a zero-waste future.

An even more detailed report is expected to be sent to commissioners in early February. What county officials haven't done is set a specific timeline for shutting down the incinerator.

The lack of a date to stop burning trash is frustrating for activists from groups like the Zero Burn Coalition and Minnesota Environmental Justice Table, who have pushed for years to close the HERC. They say emission from the incinerator contributes to adverse health outcomes in surrounding communities, including higher rates of asthma.

County staff and HERC workers dispute these claims, saying the facility's emissions are well controlled and are less of a risk to residents' health and the environment than trucking waste to landfills. State data shows the facility's emissions are under permitted levels.

Nazir Khan, of the Environmental Justice Table, said the level of detail in the county's presentation made it clear officials were serious about closing the incinerator. But much more needs to be done to engage with residents and help them understand the impacts of the incinerator and its eventual closure.

"Closing the HERC will create the urgency for the county to take zero waste more seriously," Khan said. "You can't just have conversations with people who support the status quo."

Commissioner Jeff Lunde agreed that the county needs to get better at engaging with residents about the waste they create. He said it is no surprise communities who use the HERC were frustrated with plans to close it.

"Everybody is fine with the HERC, as long as it is not in your community," Lunde said. "My trash is going somewhere else and I don't need to worry about it."

What needs to change

Hennepin County residents create about 700,000 tons of trash each year that's not recycled, enough to fill Target Field six times over. Half of it goes to landfills and the rest is burned at the HERC.

Every day, trucks drop off tons of trash at the North Loop facility. A giant claw mixes the trash and feeds it into two boilers to generate steam and electricity.

If the county is going to stop incinerating, it needs to create a lot less garbage and do a much better separating recyclables and organics, like food and paper, from other waste. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency projects that the county is actually creating more trash.

"We are moving in the wrong direction," County Administrator David Hough said.

To change course, county leaders identified a dozen things local and state leaders could do to cut back on trash. Among them: mandatory recycling and composting of organics, new rules regulating packaging and easier ways to dispose of hard-to-recycle items.

The county will also need more money from the Legislature for zero-waste initiatives. Leaders recently abandoned plans to build an anaerobic digester in favor of a facility that pulls organics and recyclables from the waste stream.

"This is not just about the county," said Board Chair Irene Fernando. "We are going to need a lot of partnership."

Why close the HERC?

The HERC is one of the county's top point sources of emissions, along with facilities such as Xcel Energy's Riverside Plant and the University of Minnesota, according to the latest data from the state Pollution Control Agency. But point sources, essentially facilities with smokestacks, are just a fraction of the county's air pollution.

Sources like vehicles, construction equipment and other business operations spew significantly more emissions into the county's air, state data shows. But those sources are harder to control because they are not permitted like a smokestack.

That makes it hard to determine how facilities like the HERC impact overall community health. State health officials note there are higher levels of asthma and other chronic diseases in some nearby neighborhoods and many of those communities have large populations of residents with low incomes and no health insurance.

"Establishing causation between a specific point source and health impacts is extremely difficult," said Jessie Carr, Minnesota Department of Health supervisor of environmental epidemiology.

Dan Fish, leader of environmental and safety at the HERC and its operator Great River Energy, said emissions are monitored around the clock and technicians can intervene if a specific pollutant level is too high.

Kari Palmer, air assessment manager at Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, said the continuous monitoring system is the "gold standard" for controlling point source emissions.


We do consider the HERC to be a well-controlled facility," Palmer said.