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

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

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.

“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.”

Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Norm Champ on 04/20/2016 - 11:29 am.


    Seems no one wants the “burner”, but no one wants to put forth realistic options to deal with the trash Minneapolis and Hennepin Co generate. Until those are proposed, and implemented, I submit hauling 100,000 – 200,000 tons yearly to landfills must be taken into account. That is why Hennepin Built this option in the first place.

    Also why doesn’t the author talk to the HERC people. Seems only 1 and 1/2 sides are represented here.

  2. Submitted by Steve Carlson on 04/20/2016 - 12:07 pm.

    And then what?

    Sure landfills vs. burning is a false dichotomy but if you stop incinerating trash you start putting it in landfills, where it decomposes into methane and leaches toxins into the water. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Trash incineration is an ugly solution to an ugly problem, but it’s better than the alternatives. Even if we reduce trash output we’re still going to have waste.

    • Submitted by Adam Miller on 04/20/2016 - 01:06 pm.

      Is it even ugly?

      Seems like this discussion should start with the evidence that the HERC is polluting (above whatever levels), which isn’t really provided.

      • Submitted by Steve Carlson on 04/20/2016 - 02:58 pm.

        Entirely fair point

        The evidence is far from definitive, and seems to favor the HERC, especially when compared to the profoundly negative consequences of letting trash molder in a landfill.

  3. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 04/20/2016 - 03:06 pm.

    The MPCA supposedly has been monitoring HERC emissions, but there always seems to be some impediment to making solid data available publicly. It is clear, however, that the county has been promoting further connections between the HERC’s electric generating capacity and new condos, apartments, and office buildings in the North Loop. That takes city permitting, and city planners/CEPD can direct those who want information about how many new buildings and redevelopments have been connected as they are built and redone, without HERC having–yet–larger capacity for burning. Minneapolis very definitely DOES have a permitting role to play in the county’s insistence on burning lots of Hennepin County garbage in our downtown (as I understand it, currently most of the garbage burned downtown is not from the city; it’s from the County).

    Also, recently there has been something moving about not letting the HERC pollute the air around or above Target Field. Which lots of us have wondered about since the ball field was built: why do they let that go on? Apparently, the suburbanites who come downtown for Twins games finally have raised questions about what they’re breathing from the HERC. (Wish I remembered where it was that I saw that brief notice about Target Field!)

    • Submitted by Scott Clausen on 04/21/2016 - 09:11 am.

      Yes – and the data is on-line

      HERC was one of the first facilities in the state (I believe) to have continuous emissions monitoring, which monitors emissions in real time.

      All of HERC’s emission data is on-line:

      The data is from 1990 to 2013. As to why it only goes to 2013 I’m not sure, but typically, they take a while to verify the data plus, MPCA only has tens of thousands of facilities it monitors and post data for. Yes, you can look up emission data for any permitted facility in the state.

  4. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 04/20/2016 - 05:32 pm.


    If there are high asthma levels in North Minneapolis, the first step is to figure out why. Same applies to lead in the environment. The source could be older housing, with lead paint, mold and pests. If that is the real problem, it can be addressed. If not, then look at the incinerator. To phase out the incinerator and see it wasn’t the problem as the problem isn’t reduced would be an expensive mistake.

  5. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 04/20/2016 - 11:05 pm.

    Why is there no data?

    I don’t understand why we need to rely on anecdotes like “we know lots of people with asthma”. The county must know exactly what comes off of the burner and if it could be a contributor or not. If it’s not, this is an important source of carbon-neutral energy *and* we should be trying to understand the cause of increased incidents of asthma in North.

    Also, if CM Yang is concerned about the quality of air in Minneapolis, maybe he should have thought of that before he voted for a Third Ave. design that makes walking less viable.

  6. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 04/21/2016 - 04:12 pm.

    So Mr. Clausen: There’s nothing at all noxious coming out of the HERC? Zip?

    If that’s true, I don’t know why the County doesn’t build a dozen or more garbage burners in other former industrial sites in our city. Or why Hennepin County doesn’t insist at the state level that every Minnesota county cease putting anything in landfills, or even bother with recycling waste. Just build lots of burners.

    I am amazed that I have never before seen anyone post something that indicates that all the air pollution worries we have in the U.S., and all landfill problems as well, would be solved if we just increased the number and size of our garbage burners. With their zero emissions!

    Nirvana, in the data he cites?

    Next, we’ll be asked to believe, with Senator Amy Klobuchar, that burning wood and other biomass does not pollute the air (she’s just co-sponsored a bill that effectively says that burning wood is good for the environment, all carbon spews being off-set by growing trees in the area).

  7. Submitted by Alan Muller on 04/22/2016 - 11:36 am.

    Inexcusable error….

    The author of this piece writes that HERC garbage burner “…burns solid waste and converts it into electricity.” This is a foolish error that anyone with the most basic grasp of science should not make. Everything that goes into a garbage burner comes out, primarily as ash and air pollutants. None of it is “converted into electricity.”

    Aside from that, reading the comments makes me wonder, for the nth time, how it came to be that so many Minnesotans are so brainwashed on the subject of incineration.

    Councilman Blong Yang, if he said was he’s quoted as saying, is wrong. The City of Minneapolis, historically very backward in waste management could and should stop sending City-generated garbage to the HERC and that could go a long way towards shutting it down.

  8. Submitted by Lara Norkus-Crampton on 04/22/2016 - 02:29 pm.

    Boston has a new Zero Waste Plan– Mpls could too

    This is what a citywide commitment to Zero Waste best practices rather than incinerating or burying recyclables and compostables looks like. I don’t think the city of Boston has a monopoly on smart people who can figure out better ways to do things.

    Mpls needs a Zero Waste plan and a fresh look at the current city contract commiting the majority of our discards to the Burner. The city should also be revisiting the original conditional use permit allowing the HERC to operate in the middle of Minneapolis. Can we honestly say that emissions from the incinerator provides NO negative impact on health, safety, comfort or General welfare of the people living in Minneapolis? Any of the public health studies on the impact of the Burner on the good people of Minneapolis in the only EIS ever done assumed a maximum 30 year exposure to emissions and particulate pollution from this incinerator. If the current 30 yr contract is extended without any additional studies on what is actually coming out of the stacks and additional health studies on the cumulative impact of 30+ years of emissions– then it seems to me that the downwind people and the region are being poorly served by policymakers and elected officials. A new independent third-party EIS could study the impacts of this regional polluter as well as alternatives to incinerating recyclables and compostables. It would also include an environmental justice component, another very important aspect.

    As one wise scientist put it, no risk is acceptable if it is preventable when it comes to the health and safety of the surrounding communities. We can do better.

  9. Submitted by Angel Gonzalez on 04/22/2016 - 03:06 pm.

    HERC, WTE terminology

    Waste to Energy is a PR term.
    Burning domestic waste is really Waste to toxic air emissions and ashes or do you think that matter dissapears when it’s burned and only energy is released? That’s what they want you to think. Clever, ha?
    By the way, where do the ashes go if not to a landfill? And the contents of these ashes are much more toxic than if the original items had been buried, as you might imagine. Burning creates a number of chemical compounds and toxic substances which don’t happen without burning.
    The energy produced is minimal and this process can also be called Waste OF Energy. This is because the energy needed to build the items burned will be much more than the energy obtained from the burn.
    Alternatives to burying or burning? Please check into Zero Waste. Check San Francisco’s successes. This is not theory, this is working in many places but it requires communities to adopt this new paradigm and educate and press their politicians to make the appropriate decisions. The corporate establishment is totally opposed, of course, so don’t think that this will come easily.

    • Submitted by Alan Muller on 04/24/2016 - 10:46 am.

      All the points made in this post are correct.

      I think the key weakness of those opposing the HERC is that they have not been willing to join in a statewide campaign against garbage incineration, which is an ongoing threat to many communities in Minnesota.

  10. Submitted by Ray Schmitz on 04/24/2016 - 05:01 pm.


    Since we continue to produce waste, and the current fascination with on line shopping with its increased pachaging may contribute more, perhaps we need to require pachaging that does not contain any elements that will produce harmful emissions when land filled or incinerated!

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