Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The HERC and "A Burning Question"

http://www.tcdailyplanet.net/sites/tcdailyplanet.net/files/imagecache/HugeColorbox/HERC%20wordle.png

Post by the Hawthorne Hawkman, image from the Twin Cities Daily Planet.

On Tuesday, September 17th there will be an excellent community forum on the HERC garbage burner.  It's called "A Burning Question" and will be hosted at the Mayflower Church at 106 E Diamond Lake Road in Minneapolis, from 7 - 9 p.m.

The Minneapolis Issues Forum has a tremendous amount of information on the HERC, more so than I could distill in a single blog post, and more than I can reasonably summarize.  Here's a decent, recent thread as an example.

I've spoken at length with supporters and detractors of the garbage burner, and find myself in the middle of the road on this one.  There are benefits to the burner, and there are costs.  The question is, who benefits and who pays those costs?  And unfortunately, low-income and minority communities in our city bear the brunt of those costs without seeing significant benefits.  Here, from my layman's perspective, is why:

First, the benefits:

The HERC takes garbage that would otherwise wind up in a landfill and converts it to energy.  The less refuse we have in landfills, presumably the better.  Furthermore, every ounce of energy produced (calorie, joule, erg, electrolyte?  What's the proper term here?  I TOLD you this was a layman's perspective) is less energy that would be produced from coal or other such un-environmentally-friendly methods.  And energy is famous for not being transported well, so it's not like we could just relocate the HERC to some far-flung corner of the county.

And the burner provides a revenue stream for Hennepin County and Covanta.  I've heard that revenue stream talked about as if it's some sort of sinister plot, and I don't see it that way.  The County money, at least, means that the loss of those funds would result in a need to cut services in one area or raise revenue in another.  So I see the revenue stream as at least a potential benefit the HERC provides.

So the burner diverts trash from a landfill, diverts energy production away from "dirty" sources like coal, and produces revenue.  What's not to like?

Well, two big byproducts.  First, the toxic ash that collects at the burner itself is not easily disposed of.  But it can find a home in a landfill somewhere, so I'll consider that a relatively minor downside.  It's the emissions that bother me.  Those emissions often wind up in some of the poorest, and racially diverse neighborhoods of the south and north sides of Minneapolis.  And there is no "safe" level of exposure to the toxins contained in such emissions, only trace amounts that are considered acceptably bad.

These are the same communities that have a disproportionate level of children who miss school due to asthma and other respiratory conditions; the same areas that are already burdened with industrial emissions from Northern Metals or proximity to freeways; and the same areas that have low rates of healthy behaviors like gardening and recycling.

However, community gardens and personal gardens are growing in popularity in these communities.  We're growing more of our own food, but in order to fully realize those benefits, the soil and the plants need to be just as free of contaminants as anyplace else.  As long as we bear the brunt of HERC emissions, that won't be the case.

The switch to single-sort recycling has, over even a short period of time, resulted in a significant increase in the volume of materials being recycled in Minneapolis.  Potentially the greatest proportional increase will come from communities where recycling was at its lowest, i.e. north Minneapolis.  So the volume of garbage that our community and even our city sends to the HERC can expect to decrease.

But remember, the burner is a county-wide facility.  So even if the total volume of garbage burned stays the same--and there is a push to increase that amount--then the reduction of Minneapolis refuse does very little to change how our communities are impacted.  The rest of the county can simply increase their share of garbage sent to the HERC.  And that is the very definition of environmental injustice, perhaps even environmental racism.  Thanks to the HERC, low-income communities and communities of color cannot fully realize the benefits of their own environmentally-conscious actions.  And that is why I find myself unable to support the burner.

1 comment:

  1. I don't really have an opinion on the HERC. It's got features that are pros and cons of which we can know the sign, but not the magnitude, but I want to point out just one or two nits that are technically incorrect in your post. (I do this for a living, don't feel bad, this post is better than much commentary I've seen, which is why I'm taking the time)

    >>The HERC takes garbage that would otherwise wind up in a landfill and converts it to energy. The less refuse we have in landfills, presumably the better.

    Landfill use is a scary bugaboo that, in the US and Candida, is not based on fact. Especially here in the midwest, our population density is so low, landfills make a ton of sense. Modern sanitary landfills do their job, then turn into valuable real estate. My brother in law in another state was living in a cheap trailer next to a landfill, which he sold for a huge profit once it was announced that the landfill was going to become a golf resort when it was finished. Waste disposal is a real issue in high-population density areas like Europe. In the US, it's a boodyman.

    But, we still gotta deal with it. Maybe that means landfill. Maybe that means incineration.

    >>And energy is famous for not being transported well, so it's not like we could just relocate the HERC to some far-flung corner of the county.

    On the county scale, energy should transport just fine. It'll cost efficiency to transport, but it costs to have generation in your back yard, too.

    >>It's the emissions that bother me. Those emissions often wind up in some of the poorest, and racially diverse neighborhoods of the south and north sides of Minneapolis. And there is no "safe" level of exposure to the toxins contained in such emissions, only trace amounts that are considered acceptably bad.

    I've got to break this up into 2 parts, and I'll address the second part first. The 'acceptably bad' is anti-scientific. Everything is toxic in the right concentrations, and everything is benign in the right concentrations. Water and O2 will kill you if you drink/breath too much, and you'd die without enough arsenic and mercury in your body.

    The first... you're right that the neighborhoods next to the emissions are going to bear the brunt of the emissions costs. However, there's no easy way to protect the tenants. Most of the people living there are tenants, not owners, as I understand. Maybe I should say many, not most. Put in an emission source, the resident tenants get the emissions.

    But, prevent and emission source via regulation or one-time action, and the protection goes not to the tenants, but to the land owners. Think about it. You rent a property in a place with some, but not a lot, of pollution. The government comes in an abates the pollution, or prevents more from happening. That increases the value of the property you already own. Increased property value means increased rental prices. Now say you are a tenant. This home you've been in for maybe years has a quality that you are used to at a price you are used to. Suddenly, the quality goes up, hey great, thats' nice. Till the rent goes up too. Now, that's ok if you have extra room in your budget for increased housing expenses. In the middle of a crappy economy. In an area that, demographically speaking, is bearing the worst brunt of the crappy economy. Not awesome.

    Now, take that all together, and I hope it's pretty clear why I have no idea if HERC is a good idea or not, even though 1) I do this kind of analysis for a living and 2) it's going in right near where I live. Lots of problems. No easy answers. That's life.

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