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A four-year dispute continues to smolder between the city of Minneapolis and Hennepin County over tons of trash being incinerated downtown.

At issue is whether to ramp up burning at the hulking Hennepin Energy Recovery Center, settled hard against the western edge of Target Field. When operating at 100 percent, the 26-year-old burner, called the HERC, can turn 1,212 tons of trash per day into heat and electricity.

The HERC now runs at 90 percent. The county wants to bump it to the maximum to keep more garbage out of landfills and has twice asked the city for permission to do so since 2009. But the city is balking over air pollution concerns, and now everyone is waiting for the state to deliver an environmental report on the effect of an increase.

“This is three units of government squaring off,” said City Council Member Gary Schiff, who heads the council’s zoning and planning committee and appears to be the most vocal council foe of increased burning.

County leaders say they’re baffled that the quest has languished because it’s in line with state goals to dump less into landfills. The county appealed the Planning Commission’s rejection to the City Council, where a key leader asks whether increased burning would hurt children in the city’s poorer north Minneapolis neighborhoods by polluting the air.

Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said the increased burning is not just environmentally sound but would bring more than $1 million into the county’s Solid Waste Fund, which goes into green initiatives. As part of its operation, the HERC turns garbage into heat that warms downtown, including the coils under Target Field, and into electricity, which is sold.

In addition, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) has been pushing to dump less. Last year, 180,000 tons of waste was sent to Twin Cities landfills. The state wants the four metro-area burners — the HERC and facilities in Elk River, Newport and Red Wing — at capacity. The metro has garbage landfills in Elk River, Burnsville and Inver Grove Heights.

Worries over burning

Schiff, who is running for mayor this year, said he isn’t convinced of the safety of increased burning. Several Minneapolis legislators, led by DFL Rep. Frank Hornstein, say burning also produces waste. Schiff’s zoning panel was on the verge of taking a vote last month on the request but decided to wait until the MPCA issues its environmental report.

“We have no exact data on where the plume is settling,” Schiff said of the releases from the HERC. “North Minneapolis already has above-average asthma rates. Everybody’s talking about disparities and this is it.”

An MPCA spokesman said the report will likely come later this spring. The county was so concerned that the city would reject its proposal last month that commissioners met behind closed doors with their lawyers to discuss strategy.

After evaluating the ramifications of additional burning, the MPCA could determine that another year of in-depth study is needed.

Looking ahead

Should that happen, Schiff said he will push for the committee to vote down the county’s request. That would compel the county to start over with a new request to the Planning Commission. If the MPCA simply issues a report, the city could take up the county request and make a decision.

The city’s authority in the matter derives from zoning laws. Minneapolis sets the rules for the land underneath the county-owned burner. “This is as complicated as it gets for zoning,” Schiff said.

Because this is a quasi-judicial appeal, council members cannot count votes or lobby each other. Schiff said he’s the only person on record against the permit.

Council Member Lisa Goodman, who also is on the zoning panel and who represents the downtown area, said she believes it’s better to burn the material than dump it into a landfill.

Hennepin County Board Chairman Mike Opat said the HERC is clean. “I’m satisfied that the millions we’ve invested to make that plant safe, to scrub all the smoke, is satisfactory,” he said, adding that if it doesn’t go to HERC, it gets sent to a “leaky old landfill.”

McLaughlin also said driving to landfills — sometimes straight through north Minneapolis — is “not without significant polluting effects.”

Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747