The Burning Question: HERC

The Hennepin Energy Recovery Center (HERC) has drawn attention in recent weeks as a talk with author Paul Connett has stirred discussion of the energy recovery process and a report by the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group (MPIRG) has examined the waste management system in Minneapolis.  As the Environmental Review process continues for the proposed amendment to the HERC’s air emissions permit, Minnesota citizens, including members of Neighbors Organizing for Change, Neighbors Against the Burner, Minneapolis Neighbors for Clean Air, and the Sierra Club continue to express concern about the effects of HERC emissions on public health and to advocate alternative energy sources and Zero Waste management strategies—including reduction, reuse, recycling, and composting—over facilities like the HERC.

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Paul Connett, advocate for zero waste strategies as a solution to incineration and landfilling, stands in front of the HERC garbage burner in downtown Minneapolis.

About the HERC

The HERC is a municipal solid waste (MSW) energy recovery facility located in downtown Minneapolis, just west of Target Field.  It was built in 1989 and is operated by Covanta Energy.  Waste is burned at the facility to produce heat, generating energy in the form of electricity and steam.  In the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Solid Waste Management Hierarchy, Energy Recovery is above the least-preferred method of Treatment and Disposal in landfills and below the more highly preferred waste management options of Source Reduction and Reuse and Recycling/Composting.  The volume of MSW combusted annually at the HERC is limited by its air emissions permit to 365,000 tons per year, below its actual capacity of 442,380 tons per year.

Proposed Permit Amendment

Covanta has proposed to increase the HERC’s waste processing rate to its full capacity, which would  represent an approximately 21% increase.  This project would increase the facility’s annual air emissions and would require an amendment to the existing air emissions permit from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and a conditional use permit from the City of Minneapolis.

Public Concerns

MPIRG’s recent report summarizes the major public health and waste management concerns regarding the HERC project.  In the report, MPIRG expresses concerns about the health damaging air pollutants emitted by the HERC and about the toxins produced by the facility, which include mercury, nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur oxides (SOx), dioxins, furans, and particulate matter.  The report stresses the disproportionate effect of these toxins on children, due both to their bodies’ greater sensitivity to health damaging air pollutants and to the location of eighteen elementary schools within two miles of the HERC site.  MPIRG also highlights their concern about higher rates of asthma hospitalization within the same two-mile radius.

In addition to the health risks of HERC emissions, the MPIRG report addresses the HERC’s role within Minneapolis’s waste management system.  MPIRG finds that improper management of the MSW that comes to the facility leads to the burning of both recyclable and organic materials that could be more responsibly dealt with earlier in the waste management stream.  The report also brings up problems associated with the practice of burning waste from cities throughout Hennepin County at the HERC, concentrating the burden of air pollution on Minneapolis residents and decreasing the incentive for Hennepin cities outside Minneapolis to reduce the amount of waste that they produce.  MPIRG calls for the implementation of curbside composting and for continued efforts to increase participation in the city’s recycling program in order to prevent the burning of organics and recyclables at the HERC and, more generally, for the City of Minneapolis to deny Covanta the conditional use permit and to reevaluate the HERC’s role in the city’s waste management system.

Environmental Review

In order for Covanta’s proposed HERC project to move forward, it must first go through the Environmental Review process, which began when Covanta applied for the permit amendment.  In Minnesota, completion of an Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW) is mandatory for this type of project.  An EAW is a document that assesses the potential environmental impacts of a proposed project and determines whether a more complete Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that outlines project alternatives will be needed.

The MPCA is currently preparing the EAW and the amended air permit for the HERC project.  When these documents are completed, they will be available on the MPCA’s HERC project page and a public comment period will begin for the project, including a public meeting held by the MPCA, before the need for an EIS is determined.

Project documents currently available include:

To sign up for email alerts about the HERC project, go to the MPCA’s HERC project page and click the link in the upper right-hand corner.

Sara C Swenson is a recent graduate from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities with a B.S. in Environmental Sciences, Policy, and Management (concentrated in Environmental Education and Communication) and a minor in Spanish.  She has studied biology and conservation in the Galápagos Islands and the effects of tourism on coral reef ecosystems in Belize, is well-versed in Minnesota’s Environmental Review process, and has a longstanding interest in environmental policy and communication.

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