Hennepin County drops trash-burning request, pushes Minneapolis on composting

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 4, 2014 - 11:21 PM

Hennepin County wants cities to develop composting collection.

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Now that Hennepin County won’t seek to burn more trash at the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center, officials want more composting.

Photo: RENÉE JONES SCHNEIDER • Star Tribune file,

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Minneapolis residents may soon have to add eggshells, strawberry stems and other organic waste to their weekly recycling duties.

The push to do so is coming from Hennepin County, which wants Minneapolis and other large cities in the county to have citywide organics ­collection and composting in place by the start of 2015.

The order is contained in a resolution withdrawing the county’s five-year-old request to burn more trash at the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center (HERC) just west of ­Target Field.

“This resolution represents our effort to move on with our solid-waste plan,” County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said Tuesday.

The goal is to shrink the estimated 1.4 million tons of solid waste produced yearly in Hennepin County. Studies have shown a third of the waste that goes into landfills is organic.

McLaughlin and the county had been pushing to increase the burning of waste rather than dumping it into landfills. While the county runs HERC, it needs City Hall approval to burn more garbage. Some legislators, city leaders and residents resisted, citing concerns about emissions, and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has been conducting an environmental assessment of the increased burning.

McLaughlin said he got a letter from 14 legislators who oppose more HERC burning, so it’s time to “move on” and “deal with the mountain of garbage we’re throwing in a hole.”

In exchange for dropping its bid to burn more trash, the county wants to see plans this spring from Minneapolis and other larger cities on how they will move toward more organics collection and composting. The cities must decide what constitutes organics, who participates in its collection, how it’s done and who pays for it.

Minneapolis City Council Member Cam Gordon told the board he supports that stick in the county resolution. “This is the kind of nudge and move forward that we need,” he said.

But he conceded that the city might not be able to meet the county’s deadline to have a full-blown organics recycling program in place by Jan. 1 — less than 11 months away.

The county’s change in course came as a surprise to the city and the MPCA. ­Neither got advance notice.

City Council President Barb Johnson described the resolution as “a spanking.”

“I thought we were partners — that’s the frustrating part,” she said.

The county’s resolution takes a swipe at the MPCA for perceived foot-dragging on the environmental review by directing the state to redistribute to municipalities a greater percentage of the solid-waste management tax collected from residents and businesses.

McLaughlin denied that retaliatory politics played any part in his proposal. But its message appears clear: The city won’t let the county burn more trash, so the county is demanding that the city reduce landfill waste through organics composting.

Haggling over HERC

Twice since 2009, the city has rebuffed county requests to bump up burning at the HERC by 10 percent, to 100 percent of its capacity. A three-way governmental faceoff ensued after the city raised environmental concerns and the state undertook the study to determine whether trash burning had any deleterious effects.

MPCA administrators defended their timeline.

“We are trying to do as thorough a job as possible in the environmental review,” MPCA Assistant Commissioner David Thornton said. “The more controversial a project, the longer it takes, because more questions get asked.”

The county’s request to increase burning was significant enough to merit scrutiny, he said, adding that its withdrawal might be a better result. “Recycling is environmentally superior to incineration,” he said.

McLaughlin and the county had argued that increased incineration was better than putting garbage in a landfill, saying that aligned with MPCA goals. When working at capacity, the 27-year-old HERC can turn 1,212 tons of trash into heat and electricity per day.

Increased burning would have brought an additional $1 million into the county’s Solid Waste Fund, which is used for green initiatives. The HERC also heats part of downtown and coils under Target Field.

Last year, 140,000 tons of waste went to Twin Cities landfills. About 30 percent of that waste is organic material, according to an MPCA report.

Hodges expresses support

New Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, who had opposed increased burning and long advocated more composting, had no complaints about the county’s resolution.

“I look forward to partnering with Hennepin County on zero-waste initiatives,” she said Tuesday. “When we’re a zero-waste Minneapolis, there’s nothing left to burn.”

City Public Works Director Steve Kottke said the city can move quickly toward organics collection, but major questions need to be answered. Among them: Will it be an opt-in program? Will organics be commingled with yard waste? Will everyone pay for the program, or just users? And where will organics be processed?

“We know that reducing organics is the next step in solid waste,” he said, but 11 months isn’t much time. “Sometime [later] in 2015 would be ­practical and reasonable.”

 

Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747

Twitter: @rochelleolson

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