Report: Mpls garbage burner already a ‘significant source’ of airborne toxins


Planned expansion would likely increase harm to communities of color


A new report by the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group (MPIRG) shows that if the downtown garbage burner continues with a planned 20 percent increase in the amount of waste being incinerated, it would likely increase harm to low-income communities and communities of color in Minneapolis.

Community members and representatives from public health and environmental justice organizations responded quickly with their concerns.

“For too long, communities of color and low-income communities have been the dumping ground when it comes to trash and toxins, “ said Karen Monahan, a resident of Minneapolis and an environmental justice activist with the Sierra Club. “The HERC garbage burner is the third largest in the country when it comes to racial disparities. Our children deserve clean air, clean water and good soil to grow food. The HERC burner compromises all of that, including health.”

Since 1989, the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center (HERC) has been incinerating a mixture of garbage, recyclables, and compostables to address solid waste management issues within the county. For over four years, HERC’s permit to expand the amount of waste it incinerates by 20 percent has been stalled as it has failed to complete a proper Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW).

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) is currently completing the final aspects of this EAW, which are expected to be released late this year or in early 2014. Once completed, the Minneapolis City Council will hold ultimate authority to grant a conditional use permit for the expansion if they find that it will not increase negative health risks in surrounding communities.

Lara Norkus-Crampton, a registered nurse, member of the Minnesota Nurses Association, and a spokesperson for Minneapolis Neighbors for Clean Air, echoed this concern. “We know that a significant portion of the trash going to this burner comes from St. Louis Park and Minnetonka. This means that any increase in Minneapolis recycling will result in Covanta, the operator of the HERC facility, importing more refuse from the suburbs.

“A 2010 report from the Minnesota Department of Health already states that Minneapolis children suffer significantly more asthma than suburban children. Particulate pollution is well known to exacerbate asthma.”

MPIRG has completed a report that examines the health, global warming, and environmental justice impacts of the proposed expansion, if approved. The report found that the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center generates significant quantities of health-damaging air pollutants and is Minneapolis’ top point-source polluter by pounds of emissions. Further, the amount of health-damaging air pollutants emitted per megawatt generated is higher than coal-, oil- or natural gas-fired plants.

HERC is a significant source of many toxins in Minneapolis, including but not limited to mercury, NOx, SOx, dioxins, furans, and particulate matter. These health-damaging air pollutants affect the lungs of children disproportionately, as they are still developing. This presents a serious health concern as there are 18 elementary schools within two miles of the HERC stack.

Additionally, the garbage sent to the burner is avoidable, as over half (51.5 percent) of the materials burned at HERC are recyclables, an additional third (32 percent) of the materials are compostable organics, and the rest of the waste is largely comprised of materials with established disposal methods other than incineration.

Louis Alemayehu, director of Environmental Justice Advocates of Minnesota, spoke about the impact the burner has on those most directly affected by it. “The plumes from the trash burner most directly hit the North Side and parts of Northeast, as well as the core of the South Minneapolis Phillips neighborhood.

“At this time in history when people of these communities are waking up and connecting the dots, we want to create the kinds of communities that we want to live in and are willing to write our own stories of health, vitality, self-determination and clarity about what is in our interest and what is not. The burner is not in our interest,” said Alemayehu.

Paul Connett, Ph.D., an expert on garbage incineration, toxicology, zero-waste strategies and lead author of the upcoming book The Zero Waste Solution: Untrashing the Planet One Community at a Time, also responded to community members’ concerns and the question facing the City. “No health risk is acceptable if it is avoidable. San Francisco, with an 80 percent diversion rate from landfills, has shown that incineration is avoidable.

“There is no justification for expanding the HERC facility and many reasons for shutting it down immediately. It does not make sense in the 21st century to spend so much money destroying resources we should be sharing with the future.”


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This article was provided by the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group.