How we got burned
It is interesting to revisit Minneapolis history, 25 years ago, when the Burner was being heatedly debated. Garbage incineration was very controversial then as now and there were many concerns about the health impacts of the predicted emissions and the toxins in the ash.
Leslie Davis, founder of Earth Protector and an early opponent of HERC, wrote an article that was printed in the 11/4/88 edition of the newsletter Waste Not (published by Paul and Ellen Connett). He quotes from an infamous letter signed by 20 MPCA staff, complaining to Commissioner Gerald Willet, their boss, about the inadequate environmental review process that resulted in an operating permit for the Downtown Burner in 1987.
Reportedly, in the letter “the staff members said state and county decision makers have not given enough attention to recycling, waste reduction and other alternatives to burning garbage. They noted that incinerators can emit toxic wastes such as dioxin, and that incinerator ash also contains contaminants … ‘Many environmental effects of pollutant emissions are incompletely understood … The bottom line is that we cannot fully evaluate all the potential environmental impacts of many toxic pollutant sources. Given these uncertainties, the question arises as to where the burden of proof lies … (Health) risk assessment is not likely to provide definitive answers anytime soon, if ever.’ They state that Minnesota’s ‘track record on policy and regulation in the area of waste management has not been admirable.’ ”
We know much more about dioxins now, of course. And it isn’t good news. They are considered some of the most toxic substances known to science, with negative health impacts at exposures of parts per trillion.
In 2002, the HERC Burner self-reported emitting 51.89% of all the 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-P-Dioxin produced in the entire state of Minnesota. This is considered the most toxic form of dioxins.
In contrast to the state regulatory staff, early Burner promoters like County Commissioner Mark Andrew were quoted in the 1987 summer edition of the MPIRG Statewatch:
“This thing [HERC] is going to look nice. We’re going to have a clock tower. We’ve got a million dollars’ worth of landscaping—it’s going to dramatically improve the visual, aesthetic value of the area it’s being built in …’ The ‘small amount’ of air pollution from the burner ‘won’t be a public health hazard,’ Andrew said. Accepting increased air pollution is part of the cost for reducing dependence on landfills, he said. ‘There is a price associated with keeping this crap out of the ground.’
In a recent Strib article, Maya Rao comments on Mr. Andrew’s “pragmatism,” wondering how he can help start an environmental group like MPIRG and advocate for a Garbage Burner in the middle of the city—still calling it “the most successful alternative energy project in the history of the state” as recently as April of this year.
The debate still rages, and community activists working with environmental groups like Sierra Club and MPIRG, as well as environmental justice groups, are hoping for waste management practices as if the downwind people mattered. Perhaps Josh Winters, current executive director of MPIRG, said it best when asked to comment: “Back when the garbage burner was first proposed, MPIRG raised many questions about the potential health impacts from the burner on the frontline communities surrounding the location of the facility. Since that time, our concerns have only increased as we analyzed the data of actual health damaging air pollutants coming from the HERC stacks, the disparate impact these emissions have on our communities and children, and the very real alternatives we have that avoid the need for garbage burning altogether. As our recent report concludes: we need to stop the proposed expansion and work to phase out garbage incineration as we increase recycling, composting and other waste diversion strategies.”