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Incinerators impact air quality and equality

The governor and the Legislature must prioritize Minnesotans’ goals of environmental and racial justice this year by ending the preferential treatment and subsidies for burning trash.

The Hennepin Energy Recovery Center is a facility located in Minneapolis that burns garbage to generate energy.
The Hennepin Energy Recovery Center is a facility located in Minneapolis that burns garbage to generate energy.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

When Minnesotans chose Joe Biden to be president, they chose a policy agenda that prioritizes racial justice and the environment — specifically, climate change. But even as we watch President Biden make progress on those priorities in Washington, it is important to remember that the policies made in St. Paul can have a greater impact on daily life and health. Gov. Tim Walz and state legislators are making decisions, this year, that will determine both the quality of the air that Minnesotans breathe and the equality of health and opportunity for all, for years to come.

For example: Will Minnesota state leaders decide, once again, to continue propping up and subsidizing the burning of trash, which primarily pollutes low-income and communities of color? This dirty, expensive waste-management practice is currently given preferential treatment and subsidized by tax dollars, including as a source of “clean” energy on par with renewable sources such as wind and solar.

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Meanwhile, trash incineration produces very little energy and emits more pollutants (including carbon dioxide, lead and mercury) into our air than the burning of coal. Looking simply at carbon dioxide emissions, it would make more sense to subsidize coal or natural gas (something the Minnesota Legislature would rightly never consider) since burning garbage for energy emits 1.5 times more carbon dioxide than coal and three times more than natural gas.

Incineration is damaging in so many ways. Consider who is most impacted by its toxic emissions. Six of the seven incinerators in Minnesota are in environmental justice communities — defined as low-income or communities of color that are disproportionately impacted by pollution. Any state leader of conscience must recognize: This fact brings another devastating layer of meaning to “I can’t breathe.”

Environmental justice communities have historically served as a kind of dumping ground for industries that no one wants in their backyard. Wealthy communities have the resources and political connections to fight back when something like a waste incineration plant pursues a permit in their ZIP code. This makes low-income neighborhoods the path of least resistance for the establishment of facilities that release harmful particulate matter.

Corey Day
Corey Day
The health consequences of this historic trend became all too clear in the past year. A Harvard University study published last April showed that higher levels of particulate matter are associated with a 15 percent higher COVID-19 mortality rate. Damaged lungs are more vulnerable to the deadly virus; thanks to Minnesota’s trash incineration problem, the most at-risk lungs in our state are in the communities that are already struggling for justice and opportunity. It is injury on top of insult.

An additional offense is the way the incineration industry has marketed itself to the people and lawmakers of Minnesota. One clever, misleading phrase, “waste-to-energy,” has created a marketing smokescreen that hides the relentless damage these facilities are doing to Minnesota’s most vulnerable populations. Lawmakers must wake up to this simple fact: The reason “waste-to-energy” sounds almost too good to be true … is because it is too good to be true. When considering the burning of trash, leaders in St. Paul should instead think of atomized waste making its way into Minnesotans’ lungs. What little energy is produced is simply not worth the consequences.

Mathy Stanislaus
Mathy Stanislaus
There is reason to have hope. Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan recently pledged to achieve 100 percent clean energy in Minnesota by 2040. According to the governor’s office, this will “require all electric utilities in Minnesota to use only carbon-free energy resources by 2040, while setting interim goals along the way.” To us, the most obvious and urgent interim goal is the end of preferential treatment and subsidies for the carbon-intensive industry of trash incineration. As long as the state props up this inefficient and toxic industry, the goals of clean energy and environmental justice will get further away, not closer.

While the problems of incineration can be found all over the country, some states are worse than others. Minnesota is among the top five states with the highest number of solid waste incinerators. It is a challenge that demands local and state-level solutions. The governor and the Legislature must prioritize Minnesotans’ goals of environmental and racial justice by ending the preferential treatment and subsidies for burning trash this year.

Corey Day served as a senior adviser to President Joe Biden’s campaign in Minnesota and previously was executive director of the Minnesota DFL. Mathy Stanislaus served as the U.S. EPA assistant administrator for the Office of Land and Emergency Management during the Obama administration. 

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