Recent action by the Hennepin County board in support of waste reduction has opponents of a downtown Minneapolis garbage incinerator worried that stalled efforts to let it burn more will once again be ramping up.
Board members on July 21 approved a plan to reduce the county’s waste stream measurably by 2015, with further reductions by 2020. The plan calls for more recycling, but it also supports a permit request to process more waste at the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center.
That request, from Covanta Energy, the company that operates the county-owned facility, was submitted to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency last year, after it was rejected by the Minneapolis Planning Commission in 2009.
It asks to bump up the amount of waste incinerated daily from 1,000 tons to 1,212 tons, an increase of roughly 40,000 tons of garbage burned per year.
Opponents of the incinerator point to the additional traces of mercury, dioxins and heavy metals the plant will emit if Covanta’s permit request is approved.
“There is a strong connection between these harmful substances and incinerators,” said Lara Norkus-Crampton, an Uptown Minneapolis resident and former Planning Commission member who opposes Covanta’s request.
“The idea that everything I’m throwing in my garbage today could go up in smoke in a week doesn’t seem wise to me,” she said. “Half of what we’re burning right now is recyclable. Why don’t we concentrate on getting those materials out of the waste stream instead of burning more?”
The request requires no expansion of the HERC, which was capable of burning 1,212 tons per day when it opened in 1989 but was limited by state statute at the time, said John Sigmond, Covanta spokesman.
The incinerator operates within all legal limits for emissions and that won’t change if it is allowed to burn more waste, he said.
“If you look at Europe, in many places they have almost zero landfilling, and that’s because they’re aggressive about recycling, but they also have 440-some plants just like this one all across the continent,” he said. “Studies show that recycling and incineration are not incompatible, they’re complementary.”
Hennepin County officials are quick to point to HERC, located at 505 Sixth Avenue North in downtown Minneapolis, as a potential model for the rest of the nation.
It currently processes about 21 percent of all the waste generated by Hennepin County residents and businesses per year, and generates electricity that the county sells to Xcel Energy to power 25,000 homes a year. It also generates steam that downtown businesses, including Target Field, purchase for their heating needs.
Hennepin County 2nd District Commissioner Mark Stenglein, whose district includes HERC, recently met with White House staff to discuss waste-to-energy facilities as part of a nationwide “Clean Energy” effort.
“We’re happy with how HERC is functioning,” Stenglein said in a news release. “It has been tremendously successful for us (and) we think it’s a nationwide model for the use of waste-to-energy technology.”
HERC’s paper trail
Minneapolis Planning Commission members turned down a conditional use permit request to increase burning at HERC in 2009 because they found that such an increase might be “detrimental to public safety, health or welfare,” said Norkus-Crampton, who voted against the request.
An appeal was filed to get the City Council to overturn the decision, but it has been delayed by Covanta and Hennepin County for two years. The appeal can’t be heard until the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency completes an Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW) on the permit request, Sigmond said.
But Pollution Control Agency officials have yet to receive the necessary information about air emissions from the plant needed to put together the EAW, said Steve Sommer, project manager for the agency.
“We really can’t go forward until we receive that information,” he said.
The plant is operating in good standing under the emissions limits to which it was held in its original 1989 permit, Sommer said.
However, it has been cited by the agency five times during its lifetime for violations, including two major ones that brought a $22,000 fine in 2001 and a $4,200 fine in 2004.
More study needed?
In addition, a group of 14 Minneapolis lawmakers wrote to Hennepin County Board Chairman Mike Opat in April, asking for a more detailed Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to examine the possible impacts of burning more waste at HERC and other options.
The letter notes that Covanta and Hennepin County in 2009 “attempted to circumvent environmental review altogether” by applying to the Pollution Control Agency for an administrative permit that would have let them avoid making additional information about emissions from the facility public.
The more in-depth EIS process would be conducted independently, instead of relying just on information submitted by Covanta and Hennepin County, Norkus-Crampton said.
“No comprehensive follow-up study has been done about (HERC’s) emissions since it opened in 1989,” she said. “I find that concerning, and I think the alternatives to burning more garbage should be fully studied as well.”
An EIS is mandatory in certain cases, and would have been required if Covanta had been asking to burn 250 additional tons per day, instead of the 212 tons per day in its request, Sommer said.
If and when the EAW is complete, the Pollution Control Agency’s Citizens Board will decide whether that closer, more independent look is needed, he said.