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  • What are the environmental concerns with the HERC?
    HERC is the 31st biggest greenhouse gas emitter in the entire state of Minnesota. ​ The facility burns trash to produce electricity and steam, which results in air pollutants emitted from its stacks and additional waste ash that must be disposed of in a landfill. Below we summarize some of the emissions from HERC and how these emissions compare to the other 223 facilities in the county. ​ Criteria Pollutant Statistics In comparison to 223 similar facilities in the County ​ Waste burned (2018-2020 annual average): 340,000 tons Carbon dioxide (2019): 173,254 tons (3rd in county) Lead (2019): 12 tons (3rd in county) Nitrogen oxides (2019): 404 tons (1st in county) Sulfur dioxide (2019): 12 tons (2nd in county) Particulate matter (PM2.5, 2019): 21 tons (2nd in county) ​ HERC is responsible for 25% of the total nitrogen oxide emissions reported from those 223 reporting stationary facilities, 14 percent of sulfur dioxide emissions, and 7 percent of particulate matter emissions. ​ Additionally, there are numerous other pollutants that Hennepin County is either not monitoring for, or lacks the equipment to monitor for, such as dioxins. These also contribute to climate issues but are not included within their reporting as it isn't required by their outdated air permit. Sources
  • What are the health concerns with the HERC?
    Note: these are only a few of the reasons. Explore our Resources page for more in-depth information Nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide react in the atmosphere to form secondary particulate matter, which can contribute to cardiovascular and respiratory disease and premature death ​ The area within a three mile radius of the HERC has the highest asthma, and asthma hospitalization rate in Minnesota. ​ Using the U.S Environmental Protection Agency’s CO-Benefits Risk Assessment Health Impacts and Mapping Tool (COBRA), experts from Clean Energy + Equity Foundation estimate that Particulate Matter related health impacts from HERC’s 2019 emissions resulted in 1-2.3 premature deaths and $11-25 million/year in health impacts ​ HERC emits pollutants that are harder to monitor, such as dioxins—which are carcinogens—and lead, which can cause organ and brain damage, particularly for children. Incineration is becoming increasingly harmful due to the increase of plastics in the waste stream. Plastics, when burned, release dioxins, the primary ingredient in the chemical weapon Agent Orange and one of the most toxic chemicals known to humankind ​ Delivering waste to HERC also requires heavy-duty trucks to pass through the neighborhood, which produces diesel particulate matter and other health-damaging air pollutants. On average, more than 200 trucks every weekday pass through to deliver waste to the facility, and nearly another 100 over each weekend. ​ Sources
  • Who does this issue affect specifically?
    In 1989, a new landfill was proposed to be built out in West Hennepin County. Residents responded in opposition and the result was a shift towards the construction of the HERC incinerator in Downtown Minneapolis. It was originally proposed to be shut down in 2009 ​ 24,000 people live within a one-mile radius of HERC, and more than 230,000 people live within a three-mile radius of HERC. ​ The following information refers to the three-mile area around the HERC ​ 49% low-income population and 49% population of color ​ A higher concentration of low-income households than 89% of the state , a higher percentage of people of color than 90% of the state, and a high concentration of children and elderly people. ​ There are 18 elementary schools within a 2-mile radius of HERC. ​ It has more linguistically isolated people than 91% of the state, and more people without a highschool diploma than 86% of the state. ​ This area also has the highest rates of asthma hospitalization in the state of Minnesota, meaning these populations are particularly vulnerable to additional pollution. ​ There's a higher concentration of particulate matter than 95% of the state, greater risk from diesel particulate matter than 98% of the state, and greater traffic nearby than 96% of the state, as well as high concentrations of superfund sites and other toxic facilities. These environmental hazards contribute to a high cumulative environmental burden on nearby communities. ​ Sources
  • Isn't incineration better than landfilling?
    Incinerators are falsely presented as preferable because landfills release methane while incinerators do not. However, incinerators emit more greenhouse gas emissions per unit of electricity produced than any other power source. Incinerators aren't the only way to avoid methane emissions either. Robust composting and landfill gas collection also avoid methane emissions and have been shown to have lower greenhouse gas emissions than incineration, as does recycling. ​ Lobbying and industry-funded research from the incinerator industry are a big reason why the false narrative that poses incinerators as superior to landfills. ​ (This lobbying has led to corrupt activity on the part of Hennepin County officials to support incineration, notably including retired county commissioner Peter McLaughlin and his spouse, a lobbyist for the incinerator industry.) Air pollution from incineration is also significantly more damaging to human health than methane release and any potential groundwater contamination from landfills. One talking point that gets used in comparing landfills and incineration is that incinerators don't contribute to landfills. The reality is that toxic ash from incinerators is still sent to ash landfills, where leaching leads to water and soil contamination. Additionally, there are times in which incineration will not completely burn the waste and the remains of the trash is sent to a landfill anyways. Landfills are also not an effective or long-term solution to waste: waste reduction and diversion are the real solutions. All over the world, incinerators ​​lock governments into garbage-burning and make it harder for cash-strapped authorities to boost recycling and compost rates.
  • Why does the county call it a "waste-to-energy" facility? Does it really turn my trash into energy?
    Despite being promoted as a “waste-to-energy” facility, the HERC actually is a false solution to the climate crisis. In addition to the toxic ash that is sent to ash landfills, incineration generates steam, which powers a turbine, creating electricity. The county then sells some of the steam generated for heating downtown buildings and sells the electricity generated to Xcel Energy to make money. ​ It is referred to as a “waste-to-energy” facility because HERC redirects a tiny amount of the energy it takes to burn 1,000 tons of trash per day at 2000+°F back to the electric grid. This method of producing electricity is one of the dirtiest forms of energy generation, it produces nearly twice as much carbon dioxide as coal plants. ​ Previously, the HERC was classified as a source of Renewable Energy and qualified for Renewable Energy credits. This meant that HERC was able to benefit financially from a false classification as being a renewable energy source because it generates electricity from burning trash. This was corrected with the recent passing of the 100% Renewable Energy bill As one example of many states that have rejected multiple attempts by the incinerator industry to qualify the energy from incinerators as renewable, New York found in 2011 that emissions from waste-to-energy facilities “were greater than emissions from coal-fired plants on a per unit of energy generated basis” and that “more energy is conserved by reducing waste and reusing and recycling materials than is generated by combusting them.” ​ Sources Comments of NY Attorney General Eric T. Scheiderman In the Matter of the Application of Covanta Energy Corporation for Modification of the List of Eligible Resources Included in the New York Main Tier Renewable Portfolio Standard Program to Include Energy From Waste (EfW) Technology, Case 03-E-0188SP29, August 19, 2011: page 3 Comments of NY Department of Environmental Conservation In the Matter of the Application of Covanta Energy Corporation for Inclusion of Energy from Waste Facilities as an Eligible Technology in the Main Tier of the Renewable Portfolio Standard Program, Case 03-E-0188SP29, August 19, 2011: page 13
  • Doesn't the HERC have to follow regulations on running? Won't those regulations make this safe?
    On its website about the HERC, the county claims: “HERC’s air permit requires it to operate under stringent U.S. EPA and State of Minnesota air pollution regulations.” This is only a fraction of the full picture. HERC’s permit does not account for the cumulative impacts of other air pollution sources in North Minneapolis, one of the most polluted and overburdened communities in the state. Other states are beginning to address this flaw in environmental regulation by requiring cumulative impacts to be considered when regulating individual facilities. HERC’s air permit is in fact very concerning. It was last issued in 2004 and since then, has been “administratively continued” every 5 years: the regulator has not determined if the HERC qualifies for a new permit since then, and just accepts the renewal paperwork every 5 years. ​ The air permit is by no means comprehensive. As previously mentioned, dioxins are an extremely harmful by-product of burning plastic. Currently, the county lacks the equipment necessary to properly evaluate their dioxin emissions and thus, is not required to report such data. ​ Creation of new materials and compounds further complicate the validity of the HERC's air monitoring. While they might be able to report on a specific set of air emissions, it is nearly impossible to claim that ALL of their emissions are within reasonable limits. This is because there are simply too many different gases and compounds that would need to be monitored in order for that claim to be truthful. The previous HERC operator admitted in 2009 that NOx must be reduced to get a new permit (see page 13 of the expansion petition). And allowed concentrations of 6 pollutants (particulate matter, dioxins/furans, HCl, Mercury, Cadmium, and Lead) under the still-active 2004 permit are higher than would be allowed for a new trash burner under 2006 EPA guidance. Sources Standards of Performance for New Stationary Sources and Emission Guidelines for Existing Sources: Large Municipal Waste Combustors; Final Rule, 40 CFR Part 60, Federal Register/Vol. 71, No. 90/May 19, 2006
  • So if landfilling and incineration aren't good, what is the solution?
    The solution is Zero Waste “The conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health.” ​ At its root, Zero Waste systems seek to re-imagine our current hyper-consumptive system of "make, take, waste" into a more circular approach to how we use resources. Check out our Resources tab for more details on Zero Waste Waste reduction and diversion initiatives are making great strides all over the world, with "zero waste cities" now in many countries. Some examples of cities that have made significant progress in Zero Waste include: Baltimore, Fort Collins, Austin, San Francisco, Alameda and Palo Alto Most of what we waste can be safely and economically recycled, reused, or composted. What is preventing us from doing so is a lack of policies, education, and infrastructure to support this societal shift in how we go about our waste. ​ There are also major national and local efforts underway to create policies which make companies more responsible for where their products end up. One of these policies is called Extended Producer Responsibility which would make producers responsible for the environmental costs of their products rather than just production. The goal of this is to disincentivize the use of cheap, and often wasteful resources when making products. ​ Other cities in the US have significantly diverted their waste from incinerators and landfills, while Hennepin County has stood firmly behind their incinerator. At the same time, they have yet to even institute multi-family composting, a large source of easily divertible waste, despite years of promises. ​ About a decade ago, the HERC was in such poor condition that it was breaking down 35+ times per year. The county has poured tens of millions into keeping this obsolete facility going since then, yet it still breaks down multiple times per year because its life expectancy is only 30 years. It has now existed for 33 years. The increasing amount of money it will cost to keep this aging incinerator operational could instead be spent on waste diversion efforts. ​ That money could be used to increase efforts to provide education to communities on sustainable waste management practices, incentives and funding for small businesses to utilize compostable materials, and creating jobs to maintain zero waste infrastructure. We are pushing for Hennepin County to shut down the HERC trash burner and instead invest personnel, money, and other resources towards handling waste much more effectively. Because of our efforts, and in conjunction with the leadership of Commissioners Angela Conley & Irene Fernando, the county is now developing a Zero Waste Plan that we hope will lay out a sustainable, regenerative future without the HERC. The county now is finally committing to a future where it does not “ban or bury” and where it diverts “90% or more of all discarded materials from landfills and incinerators.” We must make sure that a phase-out plan for HERC’s closure is part of this plan, and that the timeline for that phase-out reflects the urgency of this issue.
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