The Hennepin Energy Recovery Center, pictured in April 2023, is widely known as the HERC and manages 365,000 tons of trash each year—about 45 percent of all waste produced in the county. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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Hennepin County must come up with a plan to shut down its Minneapolis trash incinerator if it wants to access state funding awarded for an organic waste processing facility.  

Minnesota legislators included $26 million for Hennepin County’s organics waste anaerobic digester project in a large $2.6 billion bonding package deal that was reached just before the Legislature’s session ended Monday. But to access those funds, the county must submit a plan to close the controversial Hennepin Energy Recovery Center (HERC), a waste-to-energy incinerator, according to language written into the bill

An anaerobic digester is a machine that breaks down food waste and converts it into renewable biogas fuel, compost soil, and fertilizer. 

Representative Fue Lee, DFL-Minneapolis, chairs the capital investment committee and is the chief author of the bonding bill, which finances infrastructure projects. He said he included the provision in response to years of concerns from residents in his north Minneapolis district about negative health impacts of pollution from the facility. 

“I think the county should start thinking about how to address some of these concerns,” Lee said. 

The measure in the bonding bill is the second provision included in new state laws that put pressure on the county to shut down the HERC. The state’s new bill mandating 100 percent clean energy by 2040 ruled that the facility would no longer be considered a form of renewable energy. 

“This one is big,” said Nazir Khan, campaign director of the nonprofit Minnesota Environmental Justice Table, which organizes around closing the HERC and Minnesota’s six other trash incinerators. 

Language in the bill states: “This appropriation is not available until Hennepin County submits a plan for the cessation of operations at the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center to the chairs and ranking minority members of the legislative committees with primary jurisdiction over capital investment and environment and natural resources.”

‘We need a plan in place’

Hennepin County officials have been vague about a closing date for the HERC.

“Given the recent passage of the Clean Energy Bill and the growing momentum to address environmental justice concerns, Hennepin must carefully consider how to responsibly and proactively respond,” Irene Fernando, chair of the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners, said in a statement shared with Sahan Journal in April. “These conversations are already underway, and I expect to be able to share more concrete commitments within a year.

“In order to be responsive to residents’ concerns and advance our climate action goals, it’s clear that Hennepin County must take serious steps toward closing the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center.”

Hennepin County assistant administrator for public works Lisa Cerney said they are still evaluating the legislation, but said state funding is critical to plans to expand organics recycling. *

“We are disappointed with anything that has the potential to slow down progress towards the development of the anaerobic digester and confident that we will collectively find a successful path forward,” Cerney said.

Lee said he has thought about ways for the state to encourage Hennepin County to move on from the HERC for years. With the Legislature helping fund a county priority, he wanted to make sure the county helped the state achieve its goal of reducing pollution near environmental justice communities. 

“We need a plan in place so residents can see this isn’t just talk,” he said. 

There is no current timeline for the county to submit the plan, Lee said, but he hopes it will happen soon so work on the anaerobic digester can move forward. 

Waste reduction goals critical to closing HERC

The anaerobic digester facility is a key part of Hennepin County’s waste reduction and management plan. The state’s largest county has a goal of diverting 75 percent of waste from landfills and incinerators by 2030, and is currently weighing a zero waste plan that would commit to diverting 90 percent of all waste. Currently, 39 percent of Hennepin County waste is recycled via traditional and organic methods. The HERC processes 45 percent of all county trash.

A critical component of waste diversion is increasing participation in organics recycling, a process that takes food scraps and soiled paper products and breaks them down into compost, fertilizer, and biogas, which is considered a renewable energy fuel. Organic waste makes up around 30 percent of trash sent to landfills and the HERC, according to county data. 

Curbside organic waste is brought to two facilities in the south Metro, one operated by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community and the other by Specialized Environmental Technologies in Dakota County. But those sites are nearing capacity, prompting local governments to pursue digester projects. 

Hennepin County is in the process of planning and building its first anaerobic digester in Brooklyn Park connected to its large waste transfer site. The digester could process at least 25,000 tons of organic waste each year, the county says. 

Community groups like the Minnesota Environmental Justice Table and North Side residents have fought for years to close the HERC, which is a source of pollutants like carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury, lead, and particulate matter under 2.5 microns (PM 2.5), which are tiny particles that harm the lungs when inhaled. While the HERC’s emissions are under amounts allowed by a state permit, those pollutants still contribute to health conditions like asthma and heart disease. 

Minneapolis’ North Side is adjacent to the HERC, which sits on the edge of downtown near Target Field. The North Side is home to large numbers of people of color who experience some of the worst air quality and health outcomes in Minnesota, state data show. 

Khan said if Hennepin County is building a facility that will divert 25,000 tons of organic waste, they should be able to commit to burning less trash in the HERC and plan to phase out its operations entirely. His group and others have urged the county to commit to a real deadline to shut down the incinerator. Khan has been encouraged by the involvement of more people living outside of downtown and north Minneapolis joining those residents in calls to close the facility.

Legislators putting real funding dollars on the line to prompt a closure plan is a huge step, he said, but more work needs to be done. 

“I think we’re getting close,” Khan said.  

*This post was updated on May 26 to include a comment from Hennepin County staff.

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Andrew Hazzard is a staff reporter with Sahan Journal who focuses on climate change and environmental justice issues. After starting his career in daily newspapers in Mississippi and North Dakota, Andrew...