Hennepin County drops request to increase burning at HERC

Proposed county resolution requires Minneapolis to implement citywide organics recycling program by year's end

Credit: Dylan Thomas

After four years of squabbling with Minneapolis, Hennepin County is dropping its longstanding request to increase the amount of garbage it can burn at the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center (HERC).

Instead, the county board has proposed to withhold funds for Minneapolis’ recycling program unless it institutes an organic waste collection service for every residential building containing between one and eight units by Jan. 1, 2015.

At the Jan. 28 county board meeting Commissioners Peter McLaughlin, Gail Dorfman, Mike Opat and Linda Higgins introduced a co-authored resolution outlining the abrupt change in the county’s recycling strategy.

“It took, frankly, a threat by this board to take away funding from the city of Minneapolis to get them to adopt single sort recycling, which now they all love and embrace and it’s been a grand success, and I think this is an attempt to provide some direction, as is our responsibility, on composting,” said McLaughlin.

The resolution also dictates that county staff must come up with a schedule for implementing an organics collection service for every other city in Hennepin County by April 30, 2014.

Minneapolis city staff seem to like Hennepin County’s plan in theory, but the city was blindsided by the Jan. 1 deadline, which has been deemed unrealistic for a variety of reasons.

“It’s ambitious to think that we can have everything in place by January 2015,” said Ward 2 City Council Member Cam Gordon, who chairs the council’s Health, Environment and Community Engagement Committee. “Overall I think the concepts are good, but I have some concern over the way it was done, that it may create more tension. It could’ve been done in a more graceful and inclusive manner.”

Kellie Kish, Minneapolis’ recycling coordinator, said she first heard about the county’s new organics collection requirement on Jan. 29, the day after the county’s resolution was introduced. When asked if the Jan. 1, 2015 deadline was reasonable, she replied “Not really,” and directed further questions to David Herberholz, director of solid waste and recycling for Minneapolis. Herberholz did not return a request for comment.

One of the major difficulties in rolling out the county-mandated organics collection program is that Minneapolis currently only provides garbage and recycling services to residential buildings that contain between one and four units, so the city would have to increase the number of buildings it picks up from, in addition to expanding its services.

The resolution was a late addition to the Hennepin County board meeting agenda; some of the county commissioners hadn’t seen it until they arrived for the meeting. After McLaughlin read and explained the resolution, Commissioner Jan Callison successfully motioned that the it be moved to the Public Works, Energy and Environment Committee before further action was taken.

It will be discussed in committee at the Feb. 4 county board meeting, and if the resolution passes committee it will stand for final approval at the Feb. 11 meeting.

Hodges at a campaign press conference outside of HERC – photo by Sarah McKenzie

Moving toward zero waste or importing more garbage?

Higgins pointed out that many of Minneapolis’ new city council members – as well as new Mayor Hodges, who held a press conference in August outside of HERC touting her plan to move Minneapolis to zero waste – are strong supporters of a beefed-up recycling program.

“We think it’s a reasonable timeline. Pretty much all of the new council members openly campaigned on increasing recycling and organics collections, so this is probably fairly high on many of their to-do lists over there,” said Higgins.

Minneapolis has been slowly working toward developing a citywide organics collection program since a pilot program began in Linden Hills in September 2008. Most recently an organics collection study commissioned by city council was presented to its Transportation and Public Works Committee last October.

Hennepin County has made no indication that it would be willing to reduce burning at HERC. The waste-to-energy facility generates $9 million in annual revenue for the county, and provides enough power for 25,000 homes and enough heat for 1,500 homes and Target Field.

Currently a little under 75 percent of the approximately 365,000 tons of garbage incinerated annually at HERC comes from Minneapolis and a recent study by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency found that 31 percent of Minnesota’s garbage was comprised of organics.

“I think it’s great [Hennepin County] tabled its request to increase burning at the HERC, but the next step is beginning to reduce the amount of waste burned there,” said Ward 3 City Council Member Jacob Frey, whose district includes HERC.

Hennepin County pegs the annual cost of implementing and running an organics collection program for all of its municipalities at $7 million. To help pay for that cost, the county is asking the state government to cease its practice of diverting funds collected from the Solid Waste Management Tax to the state general fund.

Last year, according to Hennepin County, $21 million from the Solid Waste Management tax made its way into the state’s general fund, while Hennepin County received only $2.8 million for its recycling, waste reduction and organics collection programs.

“It’s been a travesty, frankly, that legislators and governors time and time again have diverted those funds from the purpose that they were for, which was to implement the solid waste goals of the state and give counties and local governments the resources they need,” said McLaughlin. “We’re saying put the money back where it belongs.”

Ben Johnson // 612-436-5088 // bjohnson@mnpubs.com // @johnsonbend