The HERC trash incinerator produces pollutants like carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and PM2.5—tiny particles of matter produced. A new city policy would prevent such facilities from expanding. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

The Hennepin County Board set ambitious goals last month for emission reduction and environmental resilience by approving its first climate action plan. 

The state’s largest county aims to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 and to reduce the large disparities in the way communities of color and low-income residents experience pollution. Net zero refers to the balance between the amount of greenhouse gas produced (for instance, through energy generation) and the amount removed from the atmosphere (through, say, reforestation or carbon sequestration).

The plan was created through a 16-month process involving 20 county departments, multiple cities and watershed management organizations,  and a series of community feedback sessions and public online surveys. It hits many targets environmental activists were eager to see: expanding tree planting programs to reduce heat islands and improve air quality; reducing vehicle miles traveled to shrink transportation emissions by improving transit and pedestrian and bike infrastructure; and improving flood resilience in an increasingly wet Minnesota climate. But the plan offers no path toward closing a controversial Minneapolis trash incinerator that operates under county control. 

Community and environmental groups have resisted the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center (HERC) since its construction in the North Loop neighborhood of Minneapolis in 1989. The HERC is a trash-to-energy incinerator that burns waste to create steam. That steam then generates electricity. The HERC produces enough electricity to power about 25,000 homes, which the county sells to Xcel Energy. It powers Target Field, its nextdoor neighbor. 

Incinerators produce toxic air pollutants with demonstrated links to asthma, lung disease, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Environmental justice advocates have organized against the HERC for decades, citing its location on the edge of downtown near north Minneapolis. 

The HERC emits additional pollution on north Minneapolis, a community where the majority of residents are people of color, and an area already exposed to a disproportionate amount of air-borne toxins. 

“People living close to these facilities are exposed through inhalation,” said Marco Hernández, public policy director with Communities Organizing Latinx Power and Action (COPAL).   

COPAL fights to improve conditions for immigrants and people of color in Minnesota. Closing the HERC and other trash incinerators across the state is a focal point of its environmental organizing efforts.  

County officials say the incinerator plays a useful role in trash management with lower emissions than standard landfills and cuts down on transportation pollution from hauling trash to exurban dumps.

Pollution source mislabeled as renewable energy?

Minnesota is one of 23 states that designates waste-to-energy burners a source of renewable energy. The classification means the facilities qualify for publicly funded subsidies. That’s a mistake, climate scientists say. 

Sintana Vergara, an environmental resources engineering professor at Humboldt State University, in California, said renewable energy comes from naturally occurring, ever-present sources like the sun and wind. There’s nothing natural about burning trash, she said. 

“The bottom line is that you’re burning,” Vergara said. “And whenever you burn stuff, you’re going to have air pollution” 

The facilities are major producers of carbon dioxide and particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM2.5). These are essentially tiny toxic, inhalable particles stemming from various chemical sources, often produced by burning. Incinerators are also known to produce high levels of nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxides, which are harmful to human respiratory systems, air clarity, and plant life.  

The HERC is a pollution source in Minneapolis. It produced 173,254 tons of carbon dioxide, 404 tons of nitrogen oxide, and 21 tons of PM2.5 in 2019, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Those pollution levels are lower than amounts allowed by its operating permit from the state. 

COPAL helped push through an amendment that reclassified the HERC as non-renewable energy source in a pending Minnesota House of Representatives bill calling for 100 percent of electricity to come from renewable energy by 2040. That bill has an uncertain future in the upcoming special Legislative session,  and faces a tough road through a Republican-led state senate. 

The organization opposes all incinerators in the state, but found the most political support this year to reclassify the HERC, Hernández said. COPAL plans to increase campaign efforts against incinerators in greater Minnesota in the future. 

Energy and recycling themed bicycle racks sit at the Target Field light rail station adjacent to the HERC. Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Disproportionate Impact 

Waste-to-energy incinerators rose to prominence in the late 1970s in the United States. The nation was emerging from an energy crisis and looking for alternative to oil, Vergara explained.

“We started by siting these incinerators in poor communities and communities of color and unsurprisingly, they became very unpopular,” Vergara said. 

Minnesota has seven incinerators, the third most in the nation, according to a 2020 report by The New School’s Tishman Environment and Design Center. There are 338,454 people living within a three-mile radius of those incinerators. Six of the seven are in “environmental justice communities,” a term that describes areas most exposed to environmental hazards with increased vulnerability to those risks, which the study classifies based on demographic and income data from the U.S. Census Bureau. 

“It’s not just the HERC, it’s all the incinerators across the state, it’s where they’re located,” Leslee Gutiérrez, COPAL’s environmental justice organizer, said. 

COPAL hosted an Earth Day celebration at George Floyd Square in south Minneapolis this year. When they talked about their work against incinerators “people clapped and agreed,” Hernández said. 

The Hennepin County climate action plan recognizes that communities of color are more likely to be exposed to major pollution sources and breathe worse air. 

“There are areas of the county that feel air quality impacts and bear that burden in disproportionate ways,” said Rosemary Lavin, Hennepin County director of environment and energy.  

One of those areas is north Minneapolis, an area criss-crossed by major highways and Interstate 94, and which also holds many polluting industrial sites near the Mississippi River. The plan calls for reducing vehicle miles traveled in Hennepin County by expanding mass transit and improving bike and pedestrian infrastructure. The county is also pursuing waste reduction strategies to cut down on pollution. 

Gaps between the environmental movement and the environmental justice movement

The HERC is a better way to manage waste than traditional landfilling, Lavin told Sahan Journal. Landfills are major sources of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. The county needs to manage a lot of waste, much of it organic and food waste. 

“Until we remove a significant amount of that food waste material, the HERC is a more efficient way of managing that food waste,” Lavin said. 

The county wants to move to zero waste, she said. 

Many raised concerns about the HERC during the climate-action-plan process, Lavin said. The county has heard those comments for years, she said. 

“I don’t want to dismiss the concerns we hear from the community,” she said. 

Lavin sees “a bit of a disconnect” in the way environmental groups view the HERC and the facility’s pollution impact. The HERC produces just 0.2 percent of air pollution in Hennepin County, she said. The incinerator processes waste closer to where it is produced, cutting down on transportation emissions—that is, the truck exhaust to move that waste farther away. And the county reclaims a significant amount of scrap metal at the facility. 

Environmental groups say it’s less about HERCs overall environmental impact and more about who feels it. Much of it comes down to class, Hernández said, with wealthier people less likely to live near incinerators. 

“It’s just a matter of prioritization and putting your money where your mouth is, but they’re not,” said Nazir Khan, an organizer with the Minnesota BIPOC Environmental and Climate Justice Table, a Twin Cities based nonprofit organization. 

Incinerators are a primary target of BIPOC Table organizing. The group sees a gap between the larger environmental movement and the environmental justice movement, which seeks to improve conditions for those facing the brunt of pollution and climate change:low-income people and communities of color.

The group participated in the climate action plan, where many raised critiques about the HERC. Khan wasn’t surprised that it offered no timeline for shutting the facility. 

“The county views the HERC as an asset for fighting climate change,” Khan said. 

For the county, the goal shouldn’t be closing the HERC, Lavin said, but reducing waste to the point where it’s unnecessary. 

Moving to zero waste 

Climate activists largely agree with the county on that point, but want to see a more concrete plan to get to zero waste. 

“We have to raise the temperature on the HERC, not just to shut it down, but to win a zero-waste plan,” Khan said. 

To become zero waste “we basically have to stop using landfills,” Vergara said. Today, more than 50 percent of U.S. waste goes to landfills. The Twin Cities metro area set a goal to recycle 75 percent of its waste, but around half still goes to landfills, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Hennepin County aims to recycle 75 percent of its waste by 2030

The biggest challenge, Vergara said, may be unlearning modern consumption habits common in developed countries. Vergara, a first generation Colombian American, said poorer nations tend to do much better at reusing items. 

Cities can accomplish landfill diversion through recycling traditional materials like paper and glass and organic materials such as food scraps and wood.

To get there, recycling and organic recycling must be expanded. Organic recycling is the recycling of food scraps and other compostable items that are disintegrated down into compost that is reused as fertile soil. About 18 percent of waste in Minnesota landfills are organic materials, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. 

Hennepin County has expanded its organic recycling program in recent years. Today, Minneapolis has curbside organics recycling, as do most large cities in the county. The county requires all municipalities with more than 10,000 residents to offer curbside organics recycling by 2022, with drop off sites in smaller towns. The county ordinance required large sources of food waste, like restaurants and grocers, to begin organics recycling in 2020. 

The rate of organics recycling is on the rise, but no curbside option exists for residents of multifamily buildings with more than four units. Food waste from those residences remains a big issue, Lavin said. Making it easier for people living in larger apartment buildings to recycle organically is a priority, she said. 

Expanding that program and moving towards zero waste would be a major step to closing the HERC. 

Andrew Hazzard is a 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 returned...