Home>The Latest>Incineration in Minnesota: The Environmental Justice Fight Against Hennepin Energy Recovery Center (HERC)

Incineration in Minnesota: The Environmental Justice Fight Against Hennepin Energy Recovery Center (HERC)

By Natalya Arevalo, Mar 10, 2023

What is incineration?

Waste incineration is a form of power-generation, and incineration facilities use household garbage as fuel for generating power. Waste is burned at extremely high temperatures in order to produce steam that generates electricity. When various forms of waste (plastics, hazards, foods) are tossed into the incinerator, they produce toxic emissions, like dioxins, lead, mercury, nitrogen oxides (NOx), and Particulate Matter (PM) that pollute the air, and when inhaled, can cause severe health impacts. These pollutants have been linked to many health related problems, some of which include: asthma, miscarriage, stillbirth, and high blood pressure.

What is the state of incineration in Minnesota?

Minnesota has seven incinerators scattered throughout the state, with one stationed in the densely populated city of Minneapolis. The Hennepin Energy Resource Center (HERC), was built in 1989 in the Northside of Minneapolis, an already overburdened community, with one of the highest asthma rates in the entire state. 

What is the history of organizing around the HERC?

There has been a long history of organizing against the HERC for as long as the facility has existed. Community leaders, organizers have routinely highlighted the detrimental impacts on public health that incineration has had on the most underserved communities in the City. 

How has CEED been involved?

CEED currently collaborates with  a community and grassroots-led formation named the MN Environmental Justice Table (MNEJT, The EJ Table). The MNEJT are the conveners of the Incinerators Working Group, working to strategically shut down the HERC incinerator. This working group meets bi-weekly to connect on organizing tactics, community engagement and education opportunities, and more.

Interview with Akira

Back in December of 2022, I took some time to connect with Akira Yano, a local organizer with the MNEJT. We talked about the HERC, its impacts, barriers to pushing for its closure, and how to maintain effective momentum. Take a look at our conversation:

Akira Yano of the MN Environmental Justice Table . Photo provided by Akira Yano.

Natalya: Let’s start from the top, why is waste incineration such a critical issue, and along with that, why do you feel so inclined to do this work?

Akira: Waste incineration, specifically the HERC facility, is a critical issue because of the [negative] health impacts it has on the already overburdened communities in Minneapolis. For the 34 years it has existed, people’s health has been under attack from [toxic] air emissions. [The] HERC is located 500 meters away from the 55411 zip code, which has the highest asthma, and asthma hospitalization rate in the entire state. 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 $16-25 million a year in health impacts. Additionally, in order for waste to reach the incinerator, heavy-duty trucks must pass through the local neighborhoods, which produces diesel particulate matter. On average, more than 200 trucks every weekday pass through to deliver waste to the facility, and nearly another 100 over each weekend. 

It’s also a big contributor to climate change. [The] HERC is one of the top pollutant sources in the entirety of Hennepin County (which consists of 45 cities), and is the 31st biggest greenhouse gas emitter in the entire state [of Minnesota]. The [incineration] process is also extremely dirty. For example, a study in New York showed that trash burners who produce electricity emit, on average, 1.65 times as much carbon dioxide than coal plants – which are kinda the poster child for unsustainable energy production. 

The narrative that the County upholds saying that they’re permitting within their limits is technically true, but this is because their permit is outdated and was also created in a vacuum. It does not take into account cumulative burden (the effect on nearby people’s health as a result of being exposed to multiple pollutant sources simultaneously).

In learning about the HERC five years ago, I was faced with the unjust nature of the issue in combination with how easy it was [for the county] to keep people in the dark about what is actually happening [when waste is incinerated] – I was like oh wait, there’s a huge trash burner, like right in the middle of downtown and not many people know about it? And it’s been around for decades? And it’s poisoning people, especially Black, Brown, and low-income communities?  It all just felt so beyond unacceptable to me that Black, Brown, & low-income communities are unspoken dumping grounds for the waste that our unsustainable systems produce. 

Natalya: You hit on so many important points, thank you so much for sharing. I’d love to hear about how and why the Anti-Incinerator Campaign was started over at The Table.

Akira: For sure, before getting into our campaign, I think it’s important to note that anti-incinerator efforts in the cities date back to even before the HERC was constructed… it’s important for people to know that we are not the first people to fight waste incineration in Minnesota, although I do hope that we will be the last. 

The creation of the campaign is rooted in the creation of the MNEJT which was founded out of a communal BIPOC-only Environmental Justice Study Group. Twice a month, anybody could come and join these meetings where we would share food, build community and connection with one another, and learn the history and present efforts of various environmental justice movements, campaigns, and strategy. Sophia Benrud and Nazir Khan are the founders of the Table and Nazir was the first person to be full-time staff at the organization. The campaign emerged in collaboration and with the support of EJ advocates who’ve been fighting this issue for years, including Janiece Watts, Marcus Mills, Community Power, Ananda Tan, and GAIA (the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives). That was the inception of the Table and where the roots of the campaign at the Table began, but again, there have been many before us which have led the fight to be where it is today. 

Natalya: Are there models from other cities, states, or countries that the Table is inspired by?

Akira: There’s definitely strategies that we’re learning from in other campaigns across the country. Each campaign requires an individualized approach to developing sustainable zero-waste infrastructures, because every area is going to be different in terms of its political landscape, its social landscape, etcetera. One of the locations I can point to [for inspiration] includes Detroit. Breathe Free Detroit is a group that has been fighting against the incinerator there, and they have actually been successful in getting the incinerator closed. There’s another group in New Zealand, Kaicycle, that does a really good job in accounting for the cultural shift that needs to happen [in the transition to zero-waste]. There’s also a lot of cultural practices that aren’t commonly labeled as “zero waste,” but have been practiced for generations which we can learn from. It’s a wide range of practices that encompass anything from reusing cookie tins for sewing materials to  the roots of Indigenous values and relationship with the Earth…which is an important piece of the puzzle that tends to be forgotten. 

Natalya: What barriers are you facing with the momentum of the campaign? And what are some opportunities you see for advancing the campaign?

Akira: One of the biggest barriers we’ve been facing is defensiveness and lack of transparency within the county. Over the years despite how old the incinerator is, a lot of people at the county are still firm on preserving the incinerator as an image of renewable energy you know, despite it being a false solution and despite it recently losing its renewable energy designation.

Natalya: How can people get involved – with the campaign, or just in general around incineration and zero waste initiatives?

Akira: Right now, we currently have a petition to shut down the HERC Facility that both individuals and organizations can sign on to (sign here)! There’s also a mailing list that people can sign up for here. We’re also encouraging folks to reach out to their county commissioner, either via phone or email and voice their concerns about the HERC facility. You can find your district commissioner here. Finally, if people are interested in getting involved at a deeper level, feel free to reach out to me akira@mnejtable.org

If you are interested in learning more about the campaign, or about incineration in general, check out the resources below:

MNEJT Recommended Resources

CEED Resources

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