Environmental advocates present plan to close HERC trash incinerator by 2025

The outside of a county incinerator
Minneapolis could transition away from the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center.
Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal 2021

Environmental advocates presented a plan today for a transition away from using the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center, or HERC. They want the facility closed by 2025, and they say that’s possible with this plan. 

“The main thing that we’re calling for is a hard deadline as soon as possible,” said Nazir Khan, an organizer with the Zero Burn Coalition, a group advocating for a shutdown of the HERC.  

The HERC currently takes in about half of Hennepin County’s trash. It burns waste to produce electricity, which is then sold to Xcel Energy. 

Waste-to-energy facilities like this one are meant to cut back on the amount of trash that ends up in landfills — which the state said is much needed in the Twin Cities.  

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But burning trash comes with its own problems. Incinerators produce more air pollution than landfills do, and local residents and activists say they don’t want that in their neighborhood — a zip code with already high levels of pollution and asthma rates.  

Stephani Maari Booker lives within view of the HERC. She has been active in organizing for shutdown. 

“The county has betrayed my community since 1989, when it opened a trash burner next to a community where half the residents are Black, Indigenous and people of color and half are low income,” Booker said. 

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.
Ben Hovland | MPR News 2023

Hennepin County has recently come under more pressure to move away from the HERC. Last session, the state Legislature changed the law so that energy from the facility is no longer classified as renewable.  

In October, the Hennepin County Board voted to ask its staff to put together a plan to close the facility sometime between 2028 and 2040.  

But activists say that timeline isn’t quick enough. The Zero Burn Coalition put together a plan with the help of Zero Waste USA, a national nonprofit.   

The waste model outlined in the plan would divert more trash to landfills in the years following the HERC’s shutdown and implement waste reduction efforts.

The plan also notes ways for the county to step up tactics that would divert waste out of landfills, like reuse, organics composting, and cutting down on disposable plastics.   

Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, collaborated on the plan. He pointed to the Legislature’s recent work on climate — including reclassifying the HERC’s energy as non-renewable and the passage of a cumulative impacts law — as signs that the state is ready to pave the way for changes to waste policy. 

“The Legislature is willing to help and is here to help Hennepin County make that transition,” Hornstein said. “There’s significant momentum at the state Legislature.”  

Some officials with Hennepin County and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency have said that shutting down the HERC wouldn’t necessarily be better for the environment. Currently, both the state and the federal Environmental Protection Agency prioritize waste-to-energy facilities like the HERC over landfills.   

In its recent 20-year waste management plan, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency said that a “robust plan” to take the HERC offline could reduce the volume of waste that would go to landfills if the HERC closed. Without a “robust plan,” though, the closure would add 365,000 tons of material per year to landfills — equivalent to the largest landfill in the state. 

The plan’s authors say they’re presenting their ideas to Hennepin County commissioners. They’re asking the county to collaborate with them to shorten the timeline on closing the HERC.