BY DANIEL COLTEN SCHMIDT
Right now, Minneapolitans are demanding more participation in governance, particularly in the cases of environmental justice. In May of 2023, the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute (EPNI) was able to secure community participation in the redevelopment of the Roof Depot building. Now our attention must shift to our neighbors on the Northside, who have been working to close the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center, or HERC, for decades.
The HERC is a trash incinerator that operates in downtown Minneapolis. Smoke from the HERC contains dioxins, VOCs, lead particulates, PM 2.5 (particulate matter under 2.5 microns which can harm the lungs when inhaled), and other toxins, and is the number one polluting facility in all of Hennepin County. The incinerator is one of the leading causes of respiratory and cardiovascular issues, cancer, and premature death in the residential areas closest to the facility. This includes both North and South Minneapolis as wind patterns switch seasonally.
A resolution that was drafted in October by Hennepin County Commissioners Irene Fernando, Angela Conley, and Jeffrey Lunde states that the county staff must come up with a plan to shut down the HERC between 2028 and 2040. The staff directive is due on Feb. 1, 2024. During the board’s Administration, Operations and Budget Committee on Oct. 10, Commissioners Fernando and Conley (two of the three commissioners who have constituents in Minneapolis proper) both called the 2040 option “unacceptable.” Three of the six commissioners were more conservative.
The question that the county has not yet asked is, what do the residents want? The Minnesota Environmental Justice Table (MN EJ Table) has been organizing the community around the HERC shutdown and working overtime to amplify the community’s voice. But if the county does not allow the public to participate in a substantive way, then the government is instigating anger, dissatisfaction and protest. Democratic participation and informed consent are also key principles of environmental justice, which the county claims to care about.
Minnesota is undoubtedly one of the most liberal states in the country, and Minneapolis is its progressive crown jewel. But if democracy is going to survive the next decade, we need to strengthen the processes that protect the fundamental aims of democracy. This means governing bodies must respect the opinions and expertise of their constituents. Community members, neighborhood groups and advocacy organizations must have active and respected roles in every decision that will affect their communities.
On Oct. 10, approximately 75 individuals rallied at the Hennepin County Board of Commissioner’s dais where they were given 30 minutes (two minutes per speaker) to air their grievances about the proposed resolution. Speakers included lawyers, doctors, teachers and a multicultural coalition of community members. The reigning sentiment was that the HERC has already inflicted significant harm on Minneapolis residents, and anything but the soonest possible closure date would be devastating for the community’s health and well-being.
While 30 minutes for public comment is already a strict limitation on public participation, the public forum doesn’t appear on Hennepin County’s website alongside the board’s regular meetings. No one at home knows a public comment even happened. When your neighbors complain that the government doesn’t care about them, and that politics are where the rich go to get richer, don’t be confused. Boards, councils, and executive seats are designed to separate the people from the power. Our governments need to do a much better job of listening to constituents.
Statement by Irene Fernando, Chair of the Hennepin County Board, on board action to create a HERC closure plan (updated on Oct. 24):
On October 24, the Hennepin County Board unanimously passed the Board Action Request (BAR) that directs the HERC’s closure as early as 2028, which is only possible with energetic action from State and municipal partners, particularly from the City of Minneapolis.
As a North Minneapolis resident, I have advocated for closure of the HERC since long before I was in elected office. I am deeply committed to environmental justice and promise work towards a closure on the soonest timeline. I believe there is a path to stop burning trash as soon as 2028, but aggressive action is needed from government partners to achieve this timeline:
County: It is my view that a different renewable energy solution will be needed to replace the energy currently being produced at the HERC. Every day, about half of downtown and 25,000 Minneapolis households are energized by the HERC—so as we look to the future, I am excited to consider what renewable energy options the County may have the authority to implement. It is also clear that the County must be in partnership with the State regarding the HERC facility itself, as well as much-needed clarification on the County’s role in the waste system.
State: Several legislators have reached out since the BAR was introduced, including a formal letter with 22 signers from the House and Senate. I thank the Legislature for their leadership, and I can say with confidence that we have legislative partners who are ready to advocate for the changes needed at the State, which would be required in order for closure to be compliant with statute.
Cities: By statute, decision-making regarding waste generally resides with municipalities, and the HERC is a service provided to cities within Hennepin. While all cities who use the HERC will need support and partnership to develop viable solutions for waste management, our ability to stop burning trash at the soonest timeline relies heavily on urgent, responsive leadership from the City of Minneapolis. Approximately 75% of the 365,000 tons of trash processed by the HERC each year comes from within the Minneapolis geography. To close the HERC and ensure there’s an operational plan for waste disposal, it will be imperative for the City of Minneapolis to implement solutions to reduce waste production, increase diversion, and find an alternative solution to where city trash will go.
Finally, I want to thank the hundreds of residents who have advocated on behalf of cleaner air and future generations. In the coming year, I will work diligently to pursue policy changes at the state and municipal level to expedite the closure of the HERC facility—and I look forward to remaining in joint advocacy with you as we seek partnership with State and municipal leaders.
If you have any questions, feel free to contact Bill Emory from my office at [email protected] or 612-206-1174.