Minneapolis burning

The White House has named Minneapolis a “Climate Action Champion” for its environmentally friendly initiatives. 

Last year the city developed the Clean Energy Partnership with Xcel Energy and CenterPoint Energy, providing additional opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve air quality. 

Despite these progressive environmental policies, Minnesota faces high rates of racial disparities in health, employment, and housing, many of which occur in under resourced communities and communities of color in the Twin Cities. 

American Indian and African American babies die at twice the rate of white babies. African American and Hispanic/Latino women in Minnesota are more likely to be diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer.  Industrial plants and freeway corridors concentrated in these areas release harmful toxic emissions, resulting in higher rates of respiratory issues, such as asthma. In North Minneapolis children have the highest rates of asthma hospitalization in the seven county metro area.

There is tremendous potential to restructure the policies that have led to these health, employment, and housing disparities by creating living wage jobs through building a new green economy. The next step Minneapolis must take in order to address these issues is to shut down the HERC incinerator.

The HERC was developed following a series of state laws that ironically intended to reduce waste and increase recycling and composting. According to Hennepin County, the decision to build the HERC at its site was due to “the proximity to waste sources and the opportunity to clean up and reuse contaminated land.” 

There was significant pushback from the community and environmental justice leaders on the potential risks of the incinerator and that fight continues today.

The county began constructing the HERC facility in 1986 and started to burn all of the garbage in Hennepin County there in 1989.  Covanta, the corporation that contracts with the county on the HERC, operates over 40 incinerators all over the world. They will be seeking to renew their contract in 2018.

Similar to natural and organic foods, the semantics of renewable energy has come with great debate. Regulatory policies and legislation for what constitutes renewable energy varies depending on states, counties, cities and their relationship with the waste management companies that partner with them. 

In Minnesota garbage is considered biomass and is in the same category as renewable energy, which includes the sun and the wind. Think about that. Covanta, the global trash incineration giant thrives off of a narrative of turning your garbage into electricity by burning it into “renewable energy.” What isn’t communicated to the public is what ends up in the air as a result of this dirty process and the alternatives we have to managing our waste.

Trash incineration at the HERC, which includes burning toxic materials such as tires and batteries as well as plastic recyclables, creates alarming amounts of hazardous emissions. The smog that floats over Target Field into North Minneapolis contains extremely harmful pollutants including nitrogen and sulfur oxides, mercury and dioxins. Dioxins are highly toxic environmental pollutants that cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer.

Caleb Hannan of Politico Magazine recently wrote an article praising Minneapolis’ trash incineration as such a brilliant solution to waste management that I almost forgot what it actually is. Burning garbage. If setting our trash on fire and emitting toxic chemicals into the air is our most progressive approach to this global problem in a time when climate change is one of the most pressing concerns of continuing our existence, then the human race has not evolved as much as we had believed.  The truth is we can and we must do better.

In 2014 Covanta proposed to increase the HERC’s trash burning capacity by 20 percent, but thanks to the community pushing back on the issue it was voted down by Hennepin County Commissioners.  The more trash the HERC burns the more money Covanta earns, so obviously the resolution to not increase burning was not what they had hoped for.

However, when considering the proximity the burner has to North Minneapolis, a community with such high asthma rates, and to the North Loop where an influx of gentrification has developed a huge increase in housing, restaurants, and storefronts, the resolution may have saved a lot of people from future health problems.

The HERC is an issue of an all too common and tragic pattern of environmental racism. The city disposes of waste in under resourced community of color and health disparities continue for the community. We have seen this historically in cities like Richmond, Detroit and Newark.

Yet now with rampant gentrification of the North Loop, the HERC puts the health of wealthy white residents at risk just as much as the residents of Sharing and Caring Hands, the homeless shelter across the street from the burner. I doubt that the HERC and the dioxin emissions that come with it are listed in the brochure of some of Minneapolis’ most expensive new lofts. The burner has become a health issue for everyone in the city, and all of us should unite to demand those in power to make the right decision when Covanta’s contact ends in 2018. 

Climate change is one of the most challenging global issues we face today, and if we as a humans sharing the earth do not made significant changes immediately, our children and our grandchildren will not have a chance to see the world we have enjoyed.  With the advancements in science we benefit from today it is difficult to imagine that our best solution to managing our waste is to burn it. 

Studies show, and progressive cities across the world have demonstrated that implementing zero waste practices are the best option for sustainably handling trash. Nearly 75 percent of what is burned in the HERC are organics, which could be reused as compost in local gardens and farms. 

The city’s rollout of single sort and organics recycling is a huge step forward in implementing actual zero waste policies. This process not only reduces trash, but reuses our waste, and creates jobs.

By transitioning from the garbage burning HERC incinerator to compost pick up and recycling, we can achieve zero waste and create living wage jobs all while addressing the racial, economic, and health disparities that exist in Minneapolis.  The initial costs required for making this transition are well worth it, and as a taxpayer I support investing in a future that utilizes a progressive approach towards addressing these intersectional issues and sustaining the earth. 

I also recognize that I cannot expect elected leaders to do all the work. Climate change, reducing emissions and waste, and sustaining the planet requires sacrifice from every individual.  I commit to avoid the constant temptation for material consumption. I commit to reduce the amount of waste I produce, and to compost and recycle more. I commit to talk to my council members, neighbors, friends, and family to work together to shut down the HERC and to make Minneapolis a real leader in environmental justice. 

Ryan Stopera is a social worker and community organizer in Minneapolis. He is on the board of directors of MN Neighborhoods Organizing for Change and the Lyndale Neighborhood Association.