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

Hennepin County Commissioners are poised to order staff to develop a plan to shut down a controversial Minneapolis trash incinerator sometime between 2028 and 2040. 

The county board’s administration, operations, and budget committee voted unanimously Tuesday to approve a resolution that would require workers to craft options to close the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center, broadly known as the HERC, at some point in the next 17 years. 

The full board, which also makes up the committee that voted Tuesday, is scheduled to vote on the policy on October 24. 

The move comes after years of public pressure to close the HERC, which burns trash to create steam that generates energy in downtown Minneapolis near Target Field where the Minnesota Twins play. Residents and state lawmakers have fought against the HERC for years, arguing that air pollution from the site harms residents of downtown and north Minneapolis, a predominantly Black community. 

Changes in Minnesota law in 2023 also mandated that the county come up with a plan to close the HERC in order to receive state funding for an organics recycling facility. 

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

Tuesday’s resolution, authored by Commissioners Irene Fernando, Angela Conley, and Jeffrey Lunde, falls short of the 2025 closure date sought by environmental justice advocates. However, it is on the early end of recommendations from county staff, who caution commissioners against closing the facility too soon for fear of increasing costs and putting strain on landfills. 

Commissioners Conley and Fernando asked colleagues to shorten the county’s proposed timeline for shutting down the HERC, but other board members were unwilling to change the 2028 to 2040 range. 

“2040 is absolutely unacceptable,” Fernando said. 

If the resolution is approved by a majority of the full board, county staff would have until February 2024 to submit a plan to close the HERC sometime between 2028 and 2040. 

Scores of activists crowded the county board’s chambers Tuesday urging commissioners to push for a closure date on the early end of that window. 

“I don’t think of it as a win; I think of it basically as a tiny first step. Now, we have to fight for the earliest timetable to close it,” said Stephani Maari Booker, a north Minneapolis resident.  

Staff caution closure 

Hennepin County staff recommend at a September 21 presentation that commissioners select a target shutdown date between 2040 and 2050. 

The presentation, which included a 55-page report, was prompted by state law, according to County Administrator David Hough. The 2023 bonding bill requires Hennepin County to submit a plan to close the HERC in order to receive $26 million in state funding for an organics recycling facility known as an anaerobic digester.

County staff say decommissioning the HERC would increase costs for cities and residents to manage trash; they project that Minneapolis could see at least a 30 percent jump in waste disposal costs. 

The report laid out steps that staff believe need to be met before HERC can close, including a significant increase in recycling and organics recycling, and meeting goals established in the county’s climate action plan

The HERC is the only waste processing facility in Hennepin County. Before it was constructed in the late 1980s, the county disposed of all trash in landfills in Medina and Eden Prairie. When HERC came online in 1989, it immediately began taking the majority of the waste. 

The Hennepin Energy Recovery Center, pictured in 2021, 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: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Today, about 45 percent of all county waste is burned at the HERC. A little over 50 percent of the incinerated waste comes from Minneapolis businesses, another 23 percent from city residents, and 21 percent from suburban households. 

“If HERC were to shut down prematurely, there would be an immediate and significant increase in landfilling with many consequences,” said Lisa Cerney, Hennepin County’s assistant administrator of public works. 

State and federal agencies consider incinerators preferable to landfills in what is known as the waste hierarchy. Landfills are sources of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and also pose risks to groundwater contamination. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) found that forever chemicals known as PFAS, or per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, were found at 59 former landfill sites in 2021, MPR News reported. 

In June, the MPCA presented a draft of its Metropolitan Solid Waste Plan, which urged county officials to maintain incinerators while increasing diversion efforts such as waste reduction, recycling, and organics recycling and composting. 

The state aims to divert 75 percent of all waste in the metropolitan area from landfills and incinerators by 2030. Hennepin County’s zero waste plan aims for a more ambitious 90 percent waste diversion rate. 

The HERC makes up just 0.2 percent of all county air pollution, according to the report. But the facility is a significant source of air pollution in Minneapolis, state data show. In particular, it emits a high amount of nitrogen oxide, a pollutant known to cause asthma. About 75 percent of the air pollution in Hennepin County comes from vehicle traffic, according to the report.

Commissioner Fernando said the board needs to consider the incinerator’s location near neighborhoods, and whether the facility is the best use of such a valuable piece of land. 

“I hear the climate perspectives. I think what gets lost is climate and location,” Fernando said.  

Hennepin County workers said the HERC serves as an example to residents of the need to pursue waste reduction and recycling strategies. 

“County staff recommend that we focus on HERC to highlight our trash problem and push the goal we all have in common—building a zero waste future that reduces our reliance on incineration and landfilling,” Cerney said. 

Lack of urgency 

Commissioner Conley said she was disappointed by the lack of urgency in county staff’s September report, and that she wants to see a closure date in the next five to 10 years. The shorter the timeline, the better, she said. 

“We said that racism in Hennepin County is a public health crisis. The HERC is an example of institutionalized racism,” Conley said at the staff presentation last month. 

Several speakers at Tuesday’s committee meeting also said the 2040 end of the range was too long and would expose another generation of residents to pollution from the incinerator. 

“We cannot wait another 17 years, another 20 years—we need this to happen quickly,” Minnetonka City Council Member Kissy Coakley told commissioners. 

While the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center provides energy throughout Hennepin County, the pollution from the burned refuse impacts primarily inner city neighborhoods. Credit: Aaron Nesheim | Sahan Journal

Staff also warned of financial implications. The HERC earns money from trash haulers who pay tipping fees when they deposit garbage at the facility. The facility is expected to make $25.1 million in tipping fees this year. The facility also earns between $3 million to $8 million annually selling electricity, and makes money by selling steam and scrap metal salvaged from the trash.

That money plays a critical role in funding other environmental initiatives from the county, such as grants that support tree planting, according to the county report. The action proposed by commissioners would require county staff to identify new revenue streams to support that programming. 

“We are burning garbage to pay for planting trees,” a frustrated Conley said at the September staff presentation.

State closing in 

The September report on the HERC and closing considerations was prompted by the Minnesota Legislature, which passed laws targeted at the incinerator this year. 

In addition to the bonding bill, Minnesota’s new law compelling the state to provide 100 percent clean energy by 2040 includes provisions to stop labeling the HERC as a source of renewable energy, which would prevent the incinerator from receiving clean energy tax credits. 

Commissioner Lunde said at last month’s presentation that it’s clear that the state won’t come in and forcefully close the HERC, but that legislators will keep chipping away at it. 

“They’re going to make it so we have to do it,” Lunde said. 

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...