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A recent counterpoint ("Like it or not, garbage burner is the solution," Feb. 13, responding to "Critics seek faster closure of Hennepin incinerator," Feb. 8) argued that trash burning is the solution for waste disposal, but gets several things wrong. It states that advocates calling for the closure of the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center (HERC) incinerator in Minneapolis have no alternative, ignoring that these advocates were releasing a detailed 96-page plan to transition away from incineration by January 2026. No one disagrees about the need for zero-waste measures (reduce, reuse, recycle and compost as much as possible), but the question of managing the rest is where many get confused.

HERC defenders miss several key points when they advocate to keep the county's No. 1 industrial air polluter open. First, it's not landfill vs. incinerator, but landfill vs. both. In 2022, the HERC incinerator burned more than 350,000 tons of trash and generated 73,901 tons of toxic ash that were dumped in the Rosemount Landfill. The remaining tons didn't magically disappear or turn into energy, violating the laws of physics. They went up the smokestack. Dumping ash in landfills is far more dangerous than putting unburned trash there, as fine particles can blow around and toxic chemicals (some newly created when burning) can leach out more easily, threatening groundwater.

Incinerators are worse than landfills for the climate, health and the environment. This has been demonstrated in several life-cycle analyses across the country. All of the carbon in waste is immediately injected into the atmosphere when burned, along with various toxic chemicals. In landfills, much of that carbon stays stored, especially those in plastics and more durable materials like wood. As potent as methane is, much of that gas is captured, burned and released as CO2, resulting in lower climate impacts than from trash incineration. Aerobic composting of food scraps and yard waste can further reduce climate impacts, avoiding methane generation and preventing landfills from being gassy and stinky.

Even after pollution controls, trash incinerators like HERC release more air pollution than a coal power plant to make the same amount of power. These pollutants trigger asthma attacks, and contribute to heart attacks, strokes, cancers, birth defects, learning disabilities and much more. Since this air pollution is far greater than landfills release, the impacts of incineration and ash landfilling become much worse than landfilling alone, yet most analyses ignore these health impacts and focus only on climate while cooking the books on carbon accounting.

One argument to keep the incinerator open is that Minneapolis does not have adequate landfill space available. I've done the analysis for the transition plan and found that there is more than twice the transfer station capacity needed to transport the trash, and with the currently planned landfill expansions underway, even with a 2026 closure of HERC, there is at least a decade of landfill capacity among six local landfills even if no waste reduction efforts occur. A strong zero-waste effort could easily double this landfill lifetime.

Emissions from diesel trucks cannot justify continued incineration. I've studied the impacts of trucking in waste systems. Yes, diesel trucks are polluting and more truck trips would be needed in the short term. However, the emissions coming from HERC are many times greater than trucking emissions under any scenario. An analysis I did for Montgomery County, Maryland, where much greater hauling distances would be required, found that trucking emissions are just 3% of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with landfilling, and that the increased emissions from choosing incineration over landfilling are 24 times that of trucking to landfills.

Finally, claims that HERC has air pollution controls that make its emissions "as clean as current technology allows" are false. HERC would be illegal if built new today, because modern requirements would dictate cutting in half its emissions of nitrogen oxides that trigger asthma attacks. Installing those controls at an old plant like HERC would be cost-prohibitive. Current technology also allows further reductions in toxic pollutants, but weak regulations do not require it, and operators of incinerators like HERC do not choose to spend more money when not required.

There is much agreement between the county's plan and the HERC Transition plan regarding waste reduction and recycling. A strong commitment and timeline for closing HERC would go the rest of the way and help everyone breathe easier.

Mike Ewall is founder and executive director of Energy Justice Network, and is one of the principal authors of Zero Waste USA's People's HERC Transition Plan.