Hennepin County wrestles with future of Minneapolis waste incinerator

A large gantry claw lifts trash
A large mechanical claw, suspended from a ceiling-mounted gantry crane, grips a pile of trash inside the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center in Minneapolis on Sept 14.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Every single day, some 200 dump trucks rumble into the “tipping hall” at the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center, or HERC, in downtown Minneapolis — just an outfielder’s throw away from Target Field.

There, seven days a week, the trucks dump more than 2 million pounds of trash on to the concrete floor. It’s staggering to see, and smell, the vast amount of waste generated every day up close.

There are old pairs of shoes, pizza boxes, a roll of carpet, broken toys, cardboard boxes, long entrails of plastic and countless plastic trash bags overflowing with refuse.

A bulldozer pushes it all into a pile several stories high. Then an operator lowers a huge three pronged claw. Picture one of those machines where kids try to grab a stuffed animal.

“It's really an art form,” said Dan Fish, environmental and safety leader for Great River Energy, which manages the facility. Workers first “fluff” the trash to mix wet and dry waste together, “making sure that everything that we feed into the boiler is really consistent,” Fish explained.

Three people wearing PPE walk through an industrial complex
MPR News reporter Dan Kraker walks with Dave McNary, assistant director of Hennepin County’s Department of Environmental Services, and Dan Fish, environment and safety leader for the HERC, during a tour of the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center in Minneapolis on Sept. 14.
Ben Hovland/Ben Hovland | MPR News

The trash is incinerated at 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. That heat creates steam that turns a turbine, which creates enough electricity, sold to Xcel Energy, to power about 25,000 homes. It also provides heat to neighboring Target Field and about a hundred downtown buildings.

But those are ancillary benefits; not the primary reason the HERC was built more than 30 years ago. “Our main function here is to process municipal solid waste,” Fish said.

Residents and businesses in Hennepin County generate about 800,000 tons of garbage every year that isn’t recycled or composted. About 45 percent of that trash is burned here, in the booming North Loop neighborhood of Minneapolis, next to a light rail station, hotel and new condos. The rest is trucked to landfills around the Metro area.

“In a perfect world, there would be no trash. And there would be no landfills. There would be no need for HERC,” said Dave McNary, Hennepin County's assistant director of environment and energy.

“But we're so far from there. A lot of us that have worked in this [field] for 30 years look at the 800,000 tons and say, ‘Wow. It's a monumental effort to get to zero.’ So until we get to that point, we believe that waste processing is better than landfilling.”

A close-up of an boiler's incinerator
Trash burns in one of the boilers inside the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center in Minneapolis on Sept. 14.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

But a growing chorus of community activists and elected officials disagree, and are pushing Hennepin County to commit to closing the incinerator.

Their efforts received a boost from the state Legislature this year, which changed the law to say that energy generated by the facility can no longer be treated as renewable.

“This is an environmental catastrophe,” argues state legislator Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, who helped push the legislation. He said air pollutants emitted by the facility have long created an environmental justice issue.

“These are all getting blown into neighborhoods that are already under so much stress environmentally. So it really doesn't matter what wind direction: BIPOC communities, poor communities, stressed communities, from a health standpoint, are really bearing the brunt of this.”

Lawmakers also stipulated that the county would only receive $26 million in state funding to help build an organic waste processing plant if it committed to a shutdown date.

County staff plan to present a report to the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners Thursday to help guide them as they make decisions on the HERC’s future.

“There's a number of decisions that the Board is going to be asked to make in the next year or so,” said Angie Timmons, strategic initiatives manager for environment and energy at Hennepin County. “And so we want to make sure they have the information they need to make those decisions.”

A large claw lifts trash
A large mechanical claw, suspended from a ceiling-mounted gantry crane, grips a pile of trash inside the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center in Minneapolis on Sept. 14.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The long history of disposal

The Hennepin Energy Recovery Center came online in 1989, at a time when concern peaked over pollution from landfills.

A state law passed in 1980 established a hierarchy of waste disposal. It prioritized reusing, reducing, recycling and composting waste. Waste to energy plants were listed as the next best alternative. Landfilling is the least preferred option.

That law sparked the construction of more than a dozen incinerators around the state, from Red Wing to Alexandria to Fergus Falls. Today, seven remain in operation. That's the third most of any state in the country.

But at the same time, the state promoted trash incinerators and community activists fought back against them, especially the HERC, popularly known then as the “garbage burner.”

Many of the arguments voiced by opponents at the time are echoed by community activists today, who say incineration comes at an unacceptable cost.

“North Minneapolis should not bear the burden of breathing in half the trash of Hennepin County,” said Stephani Maari Booker, a freelance writer and part-time retail worker who lives in a home she bought in north Minneapolis more than two decades ago, just over a mile from the HERC. The incinerator's smokestacks are visible from her backyard.

“We are breathing in batteries. We are breathing in plastic. We do not deserve this. This is a continuing crime of environmental racism."

A woman rests her hand on a large compost bin
Activist and writer Stephani Maari Booker stands next to her compost bin at her home in north Minneapolis on Sept. 12.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Booker says she’s not a “NIMBY” person, someone who doesn’t want an industrial facility in her backyard.

She said she drives 25 miles to a county drop off site to recycle her batteries and household hazardous waste — something many of her neighbors, who don't own cars, can't do.

In her backyard she composts her food scraps, which she uses to fertilize native flowers she grows in her backyard. She proudly shows off her trash can. She saved money by switching to a small one because she was throwing away so little garbage.

“There's a stereotype. The people in the county like to blame poor people, people of color, north Minneapolis, for supposedly not caring about recycling. Not throwing things away right.”

“I've lived here in north Minneapolis for over 20 years,” Booker said. “I'm African American. And this is what I'm doing. So don't you dare disrespect the African American working class and low income people, and say that we don't care about our environment, that we don't care about how we treat our waste.”

Booker has been working with the Minnesota Environmental Justice Table to pressure the county to commit to closing the HERC by 2025. She believes there’s more the county and the state can do to bolster recycling rates and divert waste from both landfills and incinerators.

“We think HERC being shut down will necessarily increase zero waste efforts,” said the group’s co-founder Nazir Khan. “Because it frees up investment. It’s going to shift the political will.”

A cooling tower
One in the cooling towers at the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center in Minneapolis is pictured on Sept. 14.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Despite growing calls for HERC’s closure, officials with Hennepin County and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency continue to prioritize waste to energy facilities like HERC over landfilling — as laid out in the state’s 1980 Waste Management Act.

“Both have positive and negative impacts to them,” said Kirk Koudelka, MPCA assistant commissioner for land policy and strategic initiatives. “But in general, there are more negatives on the landfilling side.”

Landfills create long-term contamination issues. Incinerators can recover metals for recycling, and produce electricity and heat. And landfills, Koudelka said, produce two to three times more greenhouse gases than waste to energy facilities.

That’s because when organic waste, like food scraps, decomposes, it generates methane, which is an extremely potent greenhouse gas. And organic waste makes up about 30 percent of landfills.

“So it doesn't make sense then, that we would move back towards landfilling, because if HERC closes, that means 800,000 tons of trash are going to be landfilled outside of Hennepin County,” argued the county’s Dave McNary.

Ash falls out of a chute in a ceiling
Ash from the incinerator falls into a holding area before being trucked out to a designated landfill at the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center in Minneapolis on Sept. 14.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

But incinerators also have negative impacts. The waste that’s burned doesn’t just disappear. What’s left is ash — about 10 percent by volume, 25 percent by weight — laden with heavy metals that is disposed of in special industrial landfills.

They also generate more air pollution than landfills. The HERC emits large amounts of nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter and other pollutants near communities that have disproportionate rates of asthma and other health conditions exacerbated by air pollution.

It’s also the 31st largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the entire state, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The facility’s emissions are well under permitted levels set by the MPCA. County officials contend emissions from HERC are negligible compared to pollution from cars and trucks, which make up nearly three-quarters of the county’s emissions.

“Shutting down HERC will not result in observable health outcome improvements for residents of Minneapolis or its suburbs,” staff concluded in its report on HERC prepared for county commissioners.

But that’s little solace to Audua Pugh, who lives in north Minneapolis where she runs a small nonprofit that promotes recycling. She says HERC is just one of many cumulative environmental impacts on her community, in addition to other industry and nearby highways.

A woman leans on the railing of a porch
Audua Pugh, a homeowner and resident in north Minneapolis, poses for a photo on her back porch on Sept. 12.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“We can't stop I-94, because it's progression to get us to where we need to be,” Pugh said. “But what we can stop is the HERC. We can stop burning our waste.”

Where the two sides find agreement is in the need to reduce the amount of waste that’s flowing both to waste to energy plants like the HERC, and to landfills.

Recycling rates across the metro have stagnated in recent years. About 45 percent of waste is recycled or composted metro-wide; that rate is about 40 percent in Hennepin County. Meanwhile the amount of trash people generate continues to grow, to 3.3 million tons across the metro, according to the most recent figures from the MPCA.

Both the state and county have recently released plans that lay out a host of strategies to get to zero waste.

For example, the MPCA’s draft plan requires communities of over 5,000 people to provide curbside pickup of organic waste.

State law requires the metro to reach 75 percent recycling by 2030. The MPCA’s Koudelka says that’s doable, largely because the state estimates that two-thirds of what is thrown away in the trash is able to be recycled or composted.

A pile of burnt metal scraps
Metal pieces are sorted out for reclamation after going through the burning process at the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center in Minneapolis on Sept. 14.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Where there’s disagreement is over the role that waste to energy facilities should play, if any, as the county moves toward a zero-waste future.

State and county officials argue that systems need to be in place to ramp up recycling and composting before HERC is closed. They point to data showing that when an incinerator closed in Elk River in 2019, landfilling rates spiked.

“If we shut down a waste energy facility without systems in place, all of that goes to a landfill,” said Koudelka. “We need to work in front of the question of what's thrown away, and keep it out of our trash cans.”

But proponents of shutting down HERC argue that keeping the facility open reduces incentives to improve recycling. As long as the facility is operating, they say, it needs to be fed with trash.

“It's a total disincentive,” said Hornstein. “They keep saying recycling isn't ready. Because of the climate crisis, the impacts on these burden communities, we can't use the same recycled arguments, promoting incineration at the expense of recycling and composting.”

Trucks deliver their loads of garbage in a large room
Trucks dump hundreds of tons of trash per day at the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center in Minneapolis, pictured on Sept 14.
Ben Hovland | MPR News
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