A small provision in the $1.5 billion infrastructure borrowing bill signed into law this spring could push Hennepin County closer to shutting down its garbage incinerator.
The Legislature approved $26 million to the county for the construction of an anaerobic digester in Brooklyn Park, a long sought facility that will help break down food and other organic waste. But it comes with a condition: "This appropriation is not available until Hennepin County submits a plan for the cessation of operations at the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center," or HERC, the bill said.
The condition in the bill was first reported by the Sahan Journal.
Rep. Fue Lee, DFL-Minneapolis, said he had repeatedly heard from constituents who are concerned about the operations at the trash burner and were hoping to see it shut down.
"We can't really direct what the county needs to do, but if they're asking for a big investment from the state regarding the anaerobic digester, we have an opportunity to ... also address some of the concerns our neighbors had," said Lee, who chairs the House's Capital Investment Committee.
In response to a request for an interview, county officials sent a written statement from Lisa Cerney, assistant county administrator for public works, who wrote that county staff were evaluating the legislation.
"We are disappointed with anything that has the potential to slow down progress towards the development of the [anaerobic] digester and confident that we will collectively find a successful path forward," Cerney wrote.
The provision is a win for environmental activists, however, who have argued for years that air pollution from the trash-burning HERC is harming areas nearby where there already are many other pollution sources, like north Minneapolis.
"The walls are coming down," said Nazir Khan, an organizer with Minnesota Environmental Justice Table.
There is no specific date or timeline in the bill to close the site, which handles 45 percent of Hennepin County's trash, or 365,000 tons a year.
Lee said the timeline will be up to county officials and their constituents. An effective plan also will require discussions with the cities that send trash there to be burned, he said. Most of the refuse incinerated at the HERC comes from Minneapolis.
Khan said the lack of a firm deadline gives the county flexibility, but added that "obviously, a closure plan they submit should include a date."
Hennepin County recently released a zero waste plan to reduce 80% of its waste stream into reuse, recycling or composting. Handling food waste, including with the anaerobic digester facility, is a key part of the plan. A quarter of the trash that is burned or sent to a landfill in the county is organic matter.
The county also faces a deadline in state law to divert 75% of its waste stream away from trash disposal by 2030. Right now, it is diverting about 39%.
"Securing state funding is critical in our ability to build infrastructure that is needed to keep pace with the growth of our organics programs," Cerney wrote.
The HERC also produces about 200,000 megawatt hours of power annually from the trash it burns, which is purchased by Xcel Energy. That's enough to run 18,811 average American homes for a year, according to usage estimates from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The HERC used to be considered a source of renewable energy under state law, but that changed earlier this year when lawmakers passed a carbon-free energy standard. By 2040, electricity across Minnesota has to be produced without adding planet-warming greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.
That means the HERC won't be a viable source of power for Xcel by 2040. The utility previously has said it has a purchasing agreement with the county though 2024, and was still planning how to deliver carbon-free energy to comply with the new 2040 goal.