Activists detail quicker, two-year timeline to close Hennepin County trash incinerator

Environmental and social justice activists said Wednesday that Hennepin County leaders' plans to operate a controversial trash incinerator for another decade are unacceptable.

Instead, the Zero Burn Coalition detailed a timeline that would close the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center (HERC) on the edge of downtown Minneapolis by the end of 2025.

Activists' expedited timeline includes something Hennepin County leaders are reluctant to do: send more of the nearly 800,000 tons of residents' non-recycled trash to landfills. At least in the short term.

Nazir Kahn, a coalition leader and member of the Environmental Justice Table, said closing the incinerator quickly will give residents and local leaders the incentive they need to achieve the zero-waste future they say they want. Khan says pushing for policy and funding changes while continuing to burn trash will prolong the disproportionate impact the HERC has on the county's most struggling communities.

"Once you build the beast, you have to keep feeding it," Khan said of the waste to energy facility that first opened in 1989. "It is actually necessary to shut down the HERC to get to zero waste."

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County leaders have settled on a different approach, outlining in a 41-page report the substantial policy and funding changes regarding solid waste that need to happen before closing the HERC. They emphasized that approach Tuesday by approving an updated contract with Great River Energy, which will operate the facility until at least 2033, unless the county exercises a new early-termination clause.

"The focus that is ahead of us is a conversation about how to close it," Commissioner Marion Greene said. "How do we deal with our waste without sending more of it to landfills?"

Despite the different timelines, there is a lot of commonality in the county and activists' plans to reduce waste. A big one is essentially requiring recycling and organics composting and banning that type of trash from landfills.

They also agree on a need to better regulate packaging and to find new ways to keep hard-to-recycle items out of landfills.

County leaders say they need the state Legislature to help with those mandate, but the Zero Burn Coalition argues there is more county leaders can do to compel residents to throw less away.

Activists have been pushing to close the HERC for years, citing the disproportionate rates of asthma and other diseases in communities near the facility. Those neighborhoods are also predominantly made up of low-income residents of color.

Stephani Maari Booker, a north Minneapolis resident and member of the Zero Burn Coalition, said county leaders needed to do more to help residents directly impacted by the HERC's emissions.

"I feel betrayed by Hennepin County," Booker said. "It reeks of environmental racism."

The HERC is one of the county's biggest point-sources of emissions, but supporters of the facility argue those emissions are well controlled and have less of an environmental impact than trucking waste to landfills.

Environmentalists challenge those assertions, saying trucking waste to landfills is better for the environment than burning it. They are also skeptical of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's preference for incineration over landfilling.

State lawmakers sparked the latest debate about the HERC last year when they removed the facility's renewable energy designation and tied infrastructure funding for the county's zero waste transition to leaders approving a timeline for its closure. Two other facilities in Minnesota burn trash and are still considered renewable energy sources.