MPCA turns back bid to burn more trash without public hearing

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Stymied by citizen resistance, the operator of Hennepin County’s incinerator in downtown Minneapolis tried – in vain – this month to get the state’s OK to burn more trash with an administrative end-run around a public hearing.

Now two state legislators accuse Covanta Energy of trying to “railroad the expansion through without further public input” (pdf).

 

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) agrees that Covanta was out of line in seeking a low-level administrative amendment to its permit in order to increase the amount of trash it’s allowed to burn.

“It was a little puzzling for us,” Carolina Espejel-Schutt told the Minnesota Independent last week. “Administrative amendment is not the correct process to follow.”

Rather than being the most minor possible kind of alteration to its permit, MPCA sees the change Covanta seeks as rising to the most significant level. “We think it is major,” she said.

Even changes of minor or moderate significance can require public hearings if there is substantial public interest, Espejel-Schutt said. And “clearly for Covanta there is a lot of interest,” she said – both from the public and elected officials.

Last summer, the Minneapolis Planning Commission voted down the plan for burning more trash at the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center (HERC). Opponents turned in force for that hearing and again when Covanta appealed the commission’s decision to the Minneapolis City Council’s zoning and planning committee.

But the company put its appeal on hold at the last minute, promising to make an application to the MPCA. Then Covanta waited until Nov. 3 – Election Day, as it happened, in Minneapolis – to submit its application.

In the meantime, opponents petitioned for environmental review, but the MPCA said it couldn’t act on that request until Covanta submitted an application.

Opponents rallied again for the postponed appeal hearing before the city council zoning and planning committee Nov. 19, but the item was tabled again. That same day, the MPCA issued its letter turning back the administrative-amendment request.

Covanta’s play for under-the-radar approval was not only inappropriate given public interest, Espejel-Schutt said, but any change without a public hearing would violate the terms of the existing permit for HERC.

Her letter to Covanta (pdf) quoted from the HERC permit:

Fuel usage: less than or equal to 365,000 tons [per] year of waste for the total facility. An amendment to increase this fuel usage must undergo public notice and comment.

Covanta is seeking to burn 442,380 tons of trash per year.

Justin Eibenholtzl, one of three Minneapolis residents to petition for an environmental review beyond the study done for the adjacent Minnesota Twins stadium, says an expansion of burning at the state’s leading source of dioxin merits study.

Until it gets state and city okay to burn more, Covanta must stay in compliance with the existing limits in its permit, MPCA’s Espejel-Schutt wrote in her letter.

But she told MnIndy that, practically speaking, Covanta could temporarily get away with burning more on a day-to-day basis without violating the annualized allowable maximum. “It would be a while” before burning more trash would exceed those limits, she said.

Covanta didn’t respond to a request for comment from MnIndy.