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Environmental and community groups join forces to take on an old foe: the HERC

The coalition, which includes the Sierra Club, NOC and the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group, started a campaign this month aimed at forcing Hennepin County to eventually phase out its downtown Minneapolis trash incinerator.

Since 2009, talks of expanding or shutting down HERC has been a point of contention among city and county officials and community leaders.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Minneapolis environmental advocates and civil rights groups are joining forces to try and shut down one of the city’s most controversial power-generating facilities.

The coalition, which includes the Minnesota chapter of Sierra Club, Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC) and the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group, started a new campaign this month to phase out the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center — better known as the HERC — which burns solid waste and converts it into electricity.

This Thursday, the groups plan to meet to discuss how they’d like to see Minnesota comply with new federal regulations surrounding phasing out coal and gas power plants by 2030. As part of that discussion, the groups are trying to figure out how they can get shutting down the HERC as part of the state’s compliance plan, ultimately replacing it with something cleaner like solar or wind.

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“Our ultimate goal is to get that phased out,” said Karen Monahan of Sierra Club Minnesota. “We don’t want a burner.”

Since 2009, talks of expanding or shutting down HERC, which is located in downtown Minneapolis, has been a point of contention among city and county officials and community leaders, many who have said the plant pollutes an area of the city already full of racial and economic disparities.

Now, Monahan said that their coalition wants to ensure that any future discussions regarding the plant only leads to its closure. “Ultimately we want the HERC gone,” she said. “We want something in its place and we want the community folks to figure out what is it that they would like to see.”

An environmental justice issue

Janiece Watts, with Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, said it’s not a coincidence that asthma is so prevalent in north Minneapolis, which is just north of the HERC’s North Loop location.

Last month, NOC conducted a survey asking people in the Near North neighborhood about their health issues. And out of the 130 people they surveyed, Watts said, 99 percent responded that they had or knew someone who had asthma. “Asthma is a huge issue in north Minneapolis,” she said. “And it’s something that wildly affects people in this community, and really people of color in general have higher rates of asthma.”

Last month the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency released data that showed there’s an unhealthy amount of lead and other toxic metals in the air in north Minneapolis — although those findings aren’t necessarily tied to the presence of the HERC.

City Council Member Blong Yang, whose Ward 5 includes a large swath of north Minneapolis, said he’s heard many complaints regarding HERC and air quality in his part of the city. “I do think it’s a problem,” Yang said in regards to the presence of the HERC. “I think the emissions certainly do affect or could impact the people who live in the ward, and I think anything related to asthma problems or other health related issues could potentially be from what the incinerator does.”

Unfortunately, Yang said, there’s not much he or anyone else from the city can do, since the HERC falls under county authority. Still, he’d love to see the plant replaced with something cleaner if it were possible.

Monahan said getting rid of HERC isn’t just an environmental issue, but also a social justice issue. It’s unfair the plant is in an area where mostly people of color live, she said, and also where dozens of schools are within a few miles of the incinerator.

Watts agreed, saying that while they know they probably won’t be getting rid of HERC anytime soon, the city and the county should be doing what they can to begin phasing it out as soon as possible. “We really can just do so much better when it comes to our energy production, our consumption and our waste disposal,” she said. “Because it affects everything in our lives.”

What about the waste?

The last time shutting down HERC was discussed was two years ago, when Hennepin County decided to table a request to increase the plant’s waste incineration rate by 10 percent after facing strong community and city opposition. Instead, the county ordered the city to expedite its composting program ahead of schedule to help reduce the large amounts of waste the city produced annually.

Carl Michaud, Hennepin County Assistant County Administrator for Public Works, said the biggest problem with getting rid of the HERC plant is that it processes the majority of the city’s waste. HERC is responsible for disposing of 75 percent of Minneapolis’ more than 200,000 tons of waste produced every year, he said, so before the county would ever think of replacing it or shutting it down, they’d need to come up with a way to dispose of all that trash.

“The problem is people in businesses are generating trash all the time,” Michaud said. “There’s a lot of material out there and we’ve got to do something with it. At this point, the HERC plant is the better option — better than going to landfills.”

Monohan argues the landfill versus incinerating argument is a false dichotomy, that the county and city should be doing more to up their recycling and composting efforts. “We don’t have to burn that trash if we really put the resources into composting and recycling,” she said.

Michaud said he agrees that composting and recycling would be a far better option than the incinerator, but he’s not convinced the city is ready with those efforts to handle the volume of waste. Minneapolis rolled out its composting program last fall, he said, but the program is optional, so not everyone is signed up yet — and it may take a while before composting plays any significant role in waste reduction.

“Just the residential side generates about 100,000 tons,” he said. “100,000 tons of trash to further recycle or compost, that’s a tall order. There’s a long way to go there.” 

Complying with the CPP

In 2014, President Obama announced a Clean Power Plan (CPP) as part of his climate agenda, in which all states would need to phase out coal and gas power plants by 2030. Under that plan, according to Environmental Control Agency guidelines, waste incinerator plants like HERC count as a clean alternative to coal and gas.

That means Hennepin County could actually increase production at HERC as part of their compliance with CPP, Monahan said, and their coalition wants to make sure that doesn’t happen. “We’re waiting at any moment for this expansion conversation to come back again,” she said. “We do not want garbage burning … part of the Clean Power Plan.”

Watts said ensuring HERC doesn’t increase its burning is a major part of their new campaign, and they’re asking the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency for an environmental justice study that would look at just how HERC affects the neighborhood.

MPCA Air Assessment Manager Frank Kohlasch said opponents shouldn’t be too concerned. While waste incinerators like HERC are considered cleaner alternatives to coal and gas plants under current guidelines, he hasn’t heard of any talks to increase burning or install new incinerators in the state. “We haven’t heard of any drivers coming out of the Clean Power Plan discussions that would lead to future waste to energy expansions in Minnesota,” he said. “All of our plans focus on the deployment of wind and solar.” 

Creating local jobs

One task of the HERC/Clean Power Plan coalition is to not only phase out HERC, but figure out what should take its place. “What do we want to see in that physical location?” Monahan asked. “What is something that would enhance the quality of our community, the environment and create family-sustaining jobs?”

Monahan said she’s not quite sure yet what that something to replace HERC might be, but she’s hoping after the coalition and their constituents meet this Thursday they might have a better idea. One thing she does know, she said, is that if the location does become another energy generator, they want it to be clean and they want the jobs to go towards folks in the community.

“We want something that is good for our community and also good for our families,” she said. “So, being able to change the system in terms of how we get our energy, what we do with our trash, and how we create good family-sustaining jobs could be a win-win-win.”

Watts said North Minneapolis is predominately people of color, so putting something in that provides jobs to people in the area would also help to address the city’s racial disparities. “This isn’t just about clean energy,” Watts said. “This is also about access to clean jobs, access to better jobs.”