See more of the story

Environmental justice advocates and Hennepin County commissioners were frustrated Thursday by a report and recommendation from county staff that said it was best to wait until 2040 to close the facility that incinerates nearly half of residents' trash.

Activists have been fighting for years to close the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center, or HERC, because of the adverse health effects emissions have on nearby communities. Commissioners largely agree it needs to be shut down, but they acknowledge a quick timeline will be difficult — even with the promise of state funds for a more environmentally friendly way of dealing with waste.

"It's mind-boggling," Commissioner Angela Conley said of the 2040 closure proposal. She noted that county leaders agree the HERC contributes to the institutionalized racism harming the health of residents living near the incinerator.

"I'm not seeing the urgency," she said.

Nazir Khan, an organizer with Minnesota Environmental Justice Table, agreed. "That's ridiculous," he said, noting the new 55-page report gave no firm timeline for closing the garbage incinerator. "If there's no deadline, they're not going to act."

The HERC has been incinerating garbage in the North Loop since 1989. Located next to Target Field, it is one of the county's biggest sources of several air pollutants that environmental and social justice advocates say contributes to high rates of asthma and other health problems in nearby neighborhoods, including north Minneapolis.

In contrast, the new county report says the HERC's emissions are well below allowable levels. It says trucking the trash elsewhere to sit in landfills will create more greenhouse gas-causing emissions.

The report lays out in detail the various hurdles that need to be overcome in order to close the incinerator. They include:

  • What to do with the roughly 365,000 tons of garbage burnt at the facility each year. Local landfills are already constrained and garbage would need to be transported out of the metro if it is not burnt.
  • How to replace the revenue and energy the HERC creates from burning trash. The facility helps heat parts of Minneapolis and generates 200,000 megawatt hours of electricity annually that is sold to Xcel Energy. That revenue helps fund county environmental programs.
  • What role the state and the local communities that create the garbage sent to the HERC should play in the effort to decommission the incinerator. Minneapolis is the biggest contributor of garbage burnt at the HERC.

The easiest answer is to create a lot less waste, but right now, Hennepin County is doing the opposite of that. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency estimates by 2042 the garbage generated by county residents and businesses will grow by nearly 20%.

In 2022, Hennepin County created about 1.27 million tons of waste. Only about 41% of it was recycled or composted, leaving nearly 800,000 tons of garbage that needed disposal.

"We just can't put it somewhere else and say we've done our job. Where the garbage goes needs to be answered," said Commissioner Kevin Anderson. "The way you close it is there's no waste stream to feed it and there is no waste going into the ground."

Dramatically reducing waste is not something Hennepin County can do alone. County Board Chair Irene Fernando said she has long advocated for closing the incinerator, but doing so will take policy changes by state and local leaders to reduce the amount of waste residents and businesses create.

The Minnesota Legislature gave Hennepin County a big nudge toward closing the HERC during the past legislative session. The state's new carbon-free electricity by 2040 plan eliminates trash burning as an acceptable energy source.

The report released Thursday was in response to another legislative action. The Legislature's infrastructure bill requires the county to have a plan for closing the HERC before it gets $26 million in state funding for an anaerobic digester to break down organic waste planned for Brooklyn Center.

County leaders may need to do more to satisfy that legislative requirement to get the infrastructure money. Commissioners are weighing whether to create a task force to develop a detailed timeline for decommissioning the HERC, but it needs to be done quickly.

"This is not a shutdown plan," said Mary Blitzer, of the North Star chapter of the Sierra Club. "This is just a report that says 'maybe 2040.' That's not progress."