Minneapolis legislators seek limit on Hennepin County trash burner downtown

Fourteen Minneapolis members seek further environmental study before allowing the downtown plant to operate at capacity.

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The Hennepin Energy Recovery Center in downtown Minneapolis.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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Fourteen Minneapolis legislators, hoping to prevent increased incineration at Hennepin County's downtown garbage burner, are urging further environmental study of a county request to operate the plant at capacity.

The legislators sent a letter Friday to County Board Chair Mike Opat, asking the County Board to seek an environmental impact statement (EIS) for the proposed expansion.

"We are not convinced that Hennepin County has sufficiently explored recycling and composting alternatives to burning significantly more garbage downtown," the legislators wrote.

But County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin called their request for the plant, which generates energy for downtown Minneapolis, shortsighted and counterproductive.

"What [an EIS] means is another nine months to a year before we can get going producing more electricity and more heat, and more reliance on coal-powered plants and nuclear-powered plants," he said.

An EIS, which details the consequences of large projects, is the most painstaking and expensive environmental study that can be done.

After a failed attempt in 2009, Hennepin County and the plant's operators, Covanta Energy, are trying again to get permission to operate the garbage burner at capacity. They need approval from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and the city.

The plant, which burns an average of 1,000 tons of garbage a day, could burn as much as 1,212 tons daily under the proposal.

That's an increase of 21 percent, which shrinks to 11 percent if you factor in the times that the plant's boilers are shut down for maintenance work.

Last winter Covanta officials submitted an environmental assessment worksheet in support of the proposed expansion. But in a seven-page letter in January, the MPCA responded that Covanta had failed to provide much of the information needed.

That's why the environmental impact statement should be done, said state Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis.

"An EIS will once and for all allow the public and the people concerned about this issue, including the county, to have a long overdue conversation on how to manage" solid waste, Hornstein said.

Hornstein said he was confident that Covanta could handle the costs of an EIS, which could run $250,000 to $500,000. McLaughlin said the county would have to pay for it.

The MPCA letter spelled out 31 areas where it said the county and Covanta had failed to supply information. The MPCA notes that the applicants don't say how the garbage burner would incinerate more waste without discharging more wastewater, and glossed over how hazardous materials are handled.

Hornstein said Olmsted County officials volunteered to do an EIS when they proposed to expand their garbage burner, assuring citizens that alternatives to burning were considered. "This is a chance, really, that we have to redirect the county's waste policy towards more recycling," he said.

But McLaughlin said that an EIS would only push more garbage into landfills.

"We're all for alternatives to combustion, but we're awash in garbage in Hennepin County," he said. "Over a half-million tons a year goes to landfills. We're talking about burning 40,000 tons of garbage more per year, less than 2 percent of the garbage in Hennepin County. It's a sideshow."

Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455

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