Wednesday, July 6, 2016

To Burn or Not to Burn?

Here's an environmental challenge I have mixed feelings about: garbage burning.

A year or so ago, Politico posted this article about Minneapolis's Hennepin Energy Recovery Center (HERC). It sings the praises of the foresight shown by Hennepin County commissioners 30+ years ago. It makes it sound as though facilities like HERC are the solution everyone else should be using throughout the country and the world. They not only get rid of garbage; they make electricity and heat for nearby buildings.

Yet I know the HERC (better known as the Garbage Burner or just the Burner) is hated in Minneapolis, especially by the people who live closest to it. Of course, it's cheek-by-jowl with a historically poor and mostly black neighborhood, North Minneapolis. But then, lo and behold, rich and white people started wanting to live and play near it, too. The Twins baseball franchise built its stadium right next door. The Warehouse District, pioneered by artists in their lofts a few decades ago but now full of latter-day yuppies in renovated buildings, is just south and east of the HERC. It keeps expanding and now is called the North Loop, the hottest development area in these generally hot Twin Cities. And those folks aren't thrilled about this existing neighbor, either.

Today, MinnPost published a Community Voices essay by Hennepin County Commissioner Linda Higgins, who advocates for the Burner in a manner similar to the Politico piece. She also points out that Minneapolis's garbage would be going to landfills outside the city if it wasn't burned, and that landfills leak toxins and greenhouse gases in ways that are harder to notice and control than at the Burner. She writes,
HERC operates under federal and state air pollution regulations. HERC’s air emissions are on average 80 percent below permitted levels from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, and emissions from HERC account for less than one percent of all air emissions in the county. In contrast, about 90 percent of the air pollution in Hennepin County comes from cars, trucks, heavy equipment, lawn equipment, and other sources like backyard fire pits, dry cleaners and restaurant exhaust systems.
Sounds pretty good, right? Yet, I know that folks from Neighborhoods Organizing for Change and MPIRG argue the Burner is the number-one cause of toxic air emissions in Minneapolis. (I wonder if they are including all the vehicles in the city, as Commissioner Higgins did, or if their claim is based on the burner as a single-point source only?)

They state on their fact sheet that the Burner produces 52 percent of all dioxins in Minnesota (not just Minneapolis), is the second largest emitter of mercury in Minneapolis, and that two-thirds of the city's greenhouse gas emissions come from the burner. (Again, I wonder if that includes all the privately owned vehicles in Minneapolis, or if they're talking only about city- or county-owned sources or single-point sources?)

They also point out that the toxic ash that results from burning ends up in landfills anyway, which doesn't sound good.

Higgins, in contrast, makes this notable point:
More than 11,000 tons of scrap metal is recovered from the waste stream at HERC and recycled annually. This is more than all of the metal collected for recycling in a year in residential recycling programs in Hennepin County. In contrast, metals are not recovered from waste delivered to landfills. (emphasis added)
I can tell these two sets of facts are not structured the same way, and I'm not getting a fair comparison between them. Apples to oranges, and all that. And it's possible the Burner can be the best solution overall, and while still being really bad for the people who live right next to it.

But it's frustrating to not know if I'm being sold a bill of goods by one side or a naturalistic-fallacy-based scare story by the other.

Photo by Susan Hubbard from the Twin Cities Daily Planet. It's from their 2013 story on the HERC.

Here's another article about the HERC, trying to sort out these complex issues.

No comments: