The recent Star Tribune editorial “Taking the lead on new clean energy” (Sept. 4) missed an important element. While Sen. Tina Smith’s proposed legislation on a national clean energy standard is commendable, she has ignored a major problem — trash-burning incinerators.
Carbon-intensive and polluting waste incineration is included as a favored energy source in the new clean energy program.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, burning trash releases nearly as much carbon dioxide as burning coal. Mercury, lead, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter also are emitted into the air. These toxins are linked to heart disease, asthma, and other respiratory ailments.
A study published last year noted that higher levels of particulate matter are associated with a 15% higher COVID-19 mortality rate.
Unfortunately, in Minnesota and across the country incinerators are most often located in environmental justice (EJ) communities — low-income or predominantly of color. In fact, six of the seven incinerators in Minnesota are located in EJ communities. In Minneapolis, the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center (HERC) has spewed pollution for years from burning plastics, metals, and other waste.
The HERC is adjacent to a community with higher rates of asthma, lead poisoning, obesity, diabetes, substandard housing, air pollution, and soil contamination as compared to other communities in Minnesota. There are already 13 companies along the river that spew toxic chemicals into the air, soil, and water.
Individually, most companies pass environmental quality standards (HERC included). But when you combine their contributions the pollution burden contributes to lower life expectancy and greater health challenges for residents in north Minneapolis.
Dr. Robert Bullard, considered the father of environmental justice, said, “Everybody produces garbage but not everybody has to live next to the landfill incinerator.”
Bullard also said, “The U.S. is segregated and so is pollution.”
For too long in Minnesota, policymakers have ignored trash-burning and its toxic emissions. Counties have subsidized incinerators like the HERC with millions in taxpayer dollars. At the state level, trash burning receives preferential treatment as it is classified as renewable energy (like solar and wind).
Politicians in Washington, D.C. have now irresponsibly categorized trash burning as “clean energy” in this new legislative proposal. In Minnesota “waste to energy” are the buzzwords to prop up the dirty trash burning business.
The reality is incinerators produce little energy and the pollution these facilities emit into the air far outweighs any benefits they provide. Incineration is the most expensive and polluting way to manage waste or to make energy and is worse than landfilling.
After the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, our community is grappling with the best way forward to protect our citizens. State leaders have discussed the need to implement policy changes to address systemic racism. Environmental issues like burning trash in our communities of color should be another important item to be addressed by our elected officials.
President Joe Biden has pledged to help states become 80% carbon-free by 2030; Gov. Tim Walz recently committed to achieving 100% clean energy in Minnesota by 2040. These are admirable objectives — 10 to 20 years into the future. Policymakers should step up now to address the dirty and damaging incinerators and bring environmental justice to our communities.
James Trice, of Minneapolis, is CEO, Public Policy Project, and the Environmental Justice Coordinating Council.