A recent article published in the online periodical Politico gives a glowing review and revisionist history of our 27-year-old Downtown Garbage Burner, HERC. The article is part of the “What Works” series, which lists JP Morgan Chase Bank as a sponsor as of April 2015. Perhaps coincidentally, JP Morgan Chase Bank is listed as a Collateral Agent in a Pledge and Security Agreement with Covanta in 2007, listing Covanta Hennepin Energy Resource Co as a subsidiary. http://www.-sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/225648/000095013707002316/c12267exv10w2.htm
According to this piece, HERC “has emerged as the centerpiece of Minneapolis’ own push to be carbon-neutral by 2030, as Minnesota’s largest city looks to vault itself into the world’s top tier of sustainable cities.” At the outset, this is a ridiculous statement. As any barbeque cook will tell you: You burn stuff—you make carbon. In the case of HERC—some of it goes into the air, land and water, and some of it goes to an ash landfill.
Some have argued that incinerating tree products or Biogenics (“biologically-based materials other than fossil fuels and mineral sources of carbon”) can be OK because replacement trees planted now can suck up that carbon in 20 (or 30) years. But this “go slow” approach to counter atmospheric carbon dumping from incineration and other sources of combustion energy doesn’t acknowledge the urgency of the climate change we are experiencing now. (This is why environmental groups like the national Sierra Club have called for more regulations on burning these materials in Obama’s new Clean Power Plan.)
Some cite the only other alternative to burning as landfilling—with the resulting methane as a “worst case scenario” from a carbon emissions standpoint. It seems like the residents of Minneapolis deserve better waste management policies than the Best of the Worst Choices. Recycling, composting and other Zero Waste methods are demonstrated Best Practices from an environmental, public health and financial standpoint.
Even the author of the Politico article had to admit, “Burning trash doesn’t at first glance seem the environmentally responsible solution—it normally brings to mind horrifying images of smoldering trash pits in the developing world that leech toxins into the air and poison generations, just as Minneapolis’ NIMBYs feared HERC would in the 1980s.”
Concerns were not just limited to alleged NIMBY’s. MPCA staff went as far as sending a memo to the head of the agency with concerns regarding the health and environmental impacts of incineration when HERC was first approved back in 1988.
“Twenty staff members of the MPCA have criticized the state’s increasingly heavy reliance on incineration to solve its garbage problems, saying the potential effects on public health and the environment are not fully known … the staff members said state and county decision makers have not given enough attention to recycling, waste reduction and other alternatives to burning garbage. They noted that incinerators can emit toxic wastes such as dioxin, and that incinerator ash also contains contaminants … ” Quoted from Star Tribune, Minneapolis, 11/4/88.
And this wasn’t just an’80s thing. A 2011 MPCA report still singles out the pollution burden imposed on Minnesota communities created by Garbage Incinerators. They list the air toxics “of greatest concern” as coming from Combustion Energy, including incinerators like HERC.
“The air toxics identified include diesel particulate, formaldehyde, acrolein, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and dioxins and furans … Combustion of fossil fuels, biomass and garbage is the most important emission source for all the identified air toxics … Since air pollution is interconnected, it is likely that multiple pollutants can be reduced by controlling [these] targeted sources. A broad PM [Particulate Matter] and VOC emission reduction strategy could help reduce public health impacts …”
The Politico article presents County Commissioner Randy Johnson’s version of HERC history, repeating an unfounded tale that disgruntled environmental activists dumped batteries into the waste stream to impact HERC’s first failed emissions test. The article then goes from unproven rumor to a plainly false statement, when it concludes: “… in the 25 years since HERC started burning greater Minneapolis’ trash, the facility has never come close to going over the strict pollution control limits it exceeded on that very first test.”
The following are some violations listed in the “Citizen’s Petitions for an EAW for HERC Expansion” to the MPCA in Sept. 2009.
2001: Covanta Energy fined $22,000 for excess hydrochloric acid emissions
2002: Covanta Energy fined $15,000 for excessive mercury emissions from HERC
2003: MPCA issues a Letter of Warning
2003: HERC’s Air Quality Permit expires and has NOT been reissued
2004: Covanta fined $4,200 because operators lack required certification
2009: Covanta verbally admits they would have to reduce dioxins to comply with new permit expectations
This data shows up in a 3-minute online search. Does this indicate journalistic sloppiness or overlooking data that might counter the HERC promo tone of this article? How can we tell?
Who is being most impacted by HERC now?
Despite the fact that Hennepin County has continued to invest millions of dollars in new pollution control equipment to patch on to our aging incinerator for emissions like NOx, HERC still dumps over 1.5 million pounds of emissions into the air every year from burning up to 2 million pounds of discards a day, according to the latest 2011 data recently reported by the EPA. Current science still can’t even tell us what the health impacts are from many of these emissions, individually or in combination.
The Energy Justice Network analysis shows that the impacted communities around HERC have high proportions of people of color compared to the rest of the state. Using 2010 census data they calculate that the average income for the 75,000 people living within 2.5 miles from HERC is $41,000 and almost half the population is non-white.
The Burner PR campaign has been working well enough to encourage new upscale condos and developments like the Open Air stadium right next door to this known source of significant regional air pollution. With these recent changes in local downtown demographics, perhaps we will see more responsiveness to calls for attention to health and climate concerns. But the analysis of the demographic data that exists now clearly shows who is predominantly impacted by HERC emissions.
The Minnesota state average for the proportion of people of color is 17.3%. The percentage for people of color within two miles of HERC is 48.2%. The ratio between the two is 2.78, which the Energy Justice Network has determined to be the third worst ratio in the country for proximity to a Garbage Burner!
The Energy Justice Map illustrates this Analysis for populations living within 2 miles of HERC.