REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK | HERC—Burn, baby, burn?


Covanta Energy and Hennepin County Environmental Services want to burn more garbage in downtown Minneapolis – 21 percent more, to be exact. That has a lot of people up in arms. What’s your take? Do you have information or opinions to share? E-mail

The Story: Covanta is the company that operates the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center, aka HERC, the garbage burner next to the new Twins stadium. Covanta wants to burn an additional 77,000 tons of garbage a year, up by 21 percent over what they are now allowed to burn.

The Minneapolis Planning Commission voted no on June 22, 2009 by a 6-2 vote. State Reps Karen Clark and Frank Hornstein and State Senator Patricia Torres-Ray all testified against the expansion.

Covanta appealed to the Minneapolis City Council Committee on Zoning & Planning, which will hear the case on July 23.

What’s at stake: Covanta says burning garbage saves the county money and produces energy. Opponents (notably the Minneapolis Neighbors for Clean Air) say that HERC already pollutes the air and they don’t want more.

FOR the increase in garbage burning

The North Loop Neighborhood Association — in whose neighborhood the facility operates — voted on May 28 to support the increase.

We saw … more information, and certainly more technical information, than we typically see in even large-scale development projects … [Representatives from Covanta] … explained that some emission types would increase, some would stay the same, and some would probably decrease. All-in-all, the benefits … namely the infrastructure is there, they’re committed to doing “green things” … with their waste heat and their steam, and that they’re committed to being good neighbors in other ways, too — in our opinion, the benefits significantly outweighed the detriments, and of course those were increased truck traffic and [an impact on] air quality.

— David Frank, chair, North Loop Neighborhood Association board of directors

AGAINST the increase in garbage burning

In opposing the increase, some environmental activists cite not only the amount of pollutants the burner could emit — permitted amounts of more than 2.9 million pounds per year of “health-damaging pollutants,” including 2,200 pounds of lead and 360 pounds of mercury, according to Neighbors for Clean Air — but the bigger picture of conservation, reuse and recycling, noting the need to produce waste for the facility to burn.

Nice words like waste to energy, biomass, renewable, and concepts like: “less dependent on foreign oil” are intended to fool us into thinking this is the answer. The cost of health care is mind-boggling. Adding to our health problems in Minneapolis, St. Paul and Minnesota by burning garbage is foolish.

Remember, if we build more garbage incinerators or add to their capacity then we have to make more garbage to feed these toxic-spewing beasts. Recycling, re-use, repair and composting are finally catching on in major communities around the world under the term Zero Waste. NAB and MNCAC demand Zero Waste and not more burning of garbage that will increase our health problems.

We are tired of “no breathe days”. We want clean air. We demand clean air!!

— Nancy Hone, coordinator and founder, Neighbors Against the Burner

If we are going to permit more incineration of garbage in Hennepin County, what will happen when our recycling programs become so efficient that there is less and less garbage to burn? Stated another way, where is the incentive for our community to recycle, sort and compost if the county continues to support incineration as a solution to solid waste?

There is a negative outcome for incineration such as the added particulates and chemical components that are added to the tons of toxic gases and chemicals that come from our transportation system. We all breathe this air and we should be doing whatever is possible to reduce the amount of pollutants into the air rather than adding to it.

— Gjerry Berquist, “public policy participant”, St. Paul (“downwind”)

There have been multiple posts to the city’s E-democracy forums as well, including an official statement of opposition by Seward Neighborhood Group:

The official stories
According to the Minneapolis City Attorney’s office, the Planning Commission may not have the legal basis to deny the permit. Assistant City Attorney Erik Nillson also warns against basing such decisions on “anecdotal testimony” … “from those who do not live, work, or frequent the areas surrounding the facility…”

Caselaw establishes that a municipality may not reject expert testimony without adequate supporting reasons. … Anecdotal testimony that more throughput equates to more pollution which equates to bad health effects is not a sufficient basis to deny the CUP. … Finally, the fact that the facility has operated on the site for twenty years and will continue to be subject to ongoing monitoring review, including obtaining a new emissions permit, from the MPCA weighs against reaching contrary finding of detrimental effects.

— Erik Nillson, assistant city attorney for Minneapolis, from a letter to Planning Supervisor Jason Wittenberg

The city’s Planning Department staff report on the issue, which recommended approval, cites Covanta’s claim of positive benefits of the increase —275 million additional pounds of steam with energy-from-waste, lower heating and cooling costs for downtown businesses, 40,000 fewer tons of waste going to landfills, and up to $100,000 a year in waste fees paid to Hennepin County — as well as relevant findings of the environmental impact statement (EIS) drafted for the new Twins stadium in 2006–2007.

[The Twins stadium] EIS also assessed potential health impacts of HERC emissions on ballpark users at the proposed level of 1,212 tons per day. The Air Dispersion Modeling and Risk Assessment study of the HERC facility referenced in the EIS concluded that the health risks associated with the HERC emissions are below EPA levels of concern. As a result of the HERC air quality analysis, no adverse effects were anticipated, thus no mitigation proposed.

In addition to emissions, the EIS also evaluated the HERC site in terms of odors. During the monitoring period from April to November 2005 it was found that neighborhood odors such as sewer smells and car and diesel exhaust were more prevalent and intense than odors from HERC. … Given the nature of the proposed use, it is subject to ongoing monitoring review by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). Therefore, the proposed modification to the CUP should not prove detrimental to public health, safety, comfort or general welfare, provided the use complies with all applicable state and local ordinances and permits.

— Planning Division staff report, June 22, 2009

How can citizens respond/participate? You can go to the Minneapolis City Council committee hearing on July 23. Or post your comments below or send them to

The meeting is at 9:30 a.m. on Thursday, July 23 in Council Chambers, Room 317 City Hall.

The agenda for that meeting is online here, and includes a link to the original staff report (dated June 22, 2009, and titled “HERC”) with notes added about the June 22 denial by the Planning Commission — a denial that went contrary to city staff recommendation. Staff recommended approval, stating that, among other findings, the conditional use to increase burning capacity:

1) Will not be detrimental to or endanger the public health, safety, comfort or general welfare.
2) Will not be injurious to the use and enjoyment of other property in the vicinity and will not impede the normal or orderly development and improvement of surrounding property for uses permitted in the district.
3) … is consistent with the applicable policies of the comprehensive plan.

The Commission’s rulings to the contrary on these three points were the basis of its denial.

Ward Council Member

1 Paul Ostrow (612) 673-2201
2 Cam Gordon (612) 673-2202
3 Diane Hofstede (612) 673-2203
4 Barbara Johnson (612) 673-2204
5 Don Samuels (612) 673-2205
6 Robert Lilligren (612) 673-2206
7 Lisa Goodman (612) 673-2207
8 Elizabeth Glidden (612) 673-2208
9 Gary Schiff (612) 673-2209
10 Ralph Remington (612) 673-2210
11 Scott Benson (612) 673-2211
12 Sandy Colvin Roy (612) 673-2212
13 Betsy Hodges (612) 673-2213