Report deems incinerator an outdated health risk

Student group argues against HERC permit to increase garbage burning

Plans to operate the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center at capacity have met resistance from those who consider it a health risk. Credit: Dylan Thomas

NORTH LOOP — A new report argues emissions from a downtown Minneapolis waste-to-energy facility disproportionately impact the health of residents in low-income, inner-city neighborhoods and urges city leaders to reject plans for burning even more garbage.

The report issued Sept. 17 by Minnesota Public Interest Research Group also raises the question of whether Hennepin County should continue to burn waste when efforts are underway to dramatically increase recycling and composting. The county burns about 365,000 tons of waste per year at the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center, or HERC, located just west of Target Field.

With Covanta, the company that operates the facility, the county has applied for a city permit to operate the facility at full capacity, increasing burning about 20 percent to 442,380 tons per year. The request was first made in 2009, but action now isn’t expected until after the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency delivers its own report on HERC in December or January.

Josh Winters, executive director of MPIRG, a student-run advocacy group, said Covanta’s own studies indicate much of what is burned in the incinerator is either recyclable or organic waste that could be composted. Winters described the burner as a “top polluter” in the city and a “significant source of many toxins in Minneapolis.”

Among those who attended an MPRIG event marking the report’s release was Louis Alemayehu, executive director of Environmental Justice Advocates of Minnesota, who noted asthma rates are known to be higher among children in inner-city schools.

“More particulate matter will make a bad situation worse,” Alemayehu added.

Based on data collected from downtown-area air monitors, the latest Minnesota Pollution Control Agency analysis predicts an increase in burning at HERC won’t push airborne pollutants to levels considered a health risk under state and federal standards.

MPCA Assistant Commissioner David Thornton said the report due later this year, known as an environmental assessment worksheet, will include more information on where emissions from the HERC stacks end up. The agency also is working with the Minnesota Department of Health to get a clearer picture of current health issues in the North and South Minneapolis neighborhoods nearest the facility, Thornton added.

“It also is going to take into account the existing levels of pollution that are in the area from other sources and look at the cumulative risk, how this change at this facility adds on to everything else that’s already there,” he said.