Don't Hold Your Breath

Where there's smoke there's a garbage incineration facility: The Hennepin Energy Resource Company plant in mid-January
Nick Vlcek

On the historic occasion of the state's first "unhealthy for all" air quality alert in a quarter-century, the Hennepin Energy Resource Company decided to mark the event by burning some garbage. Last week wasn't anything special for the plant known as HERC. This boxy facility just north of Minneapolis's Warehouse District burns garbage all the time. The company converts our municipal waste into steam energy, which it then sells to Xcel Energy.

Xcel, for its part, responded to the air quality warnings by continuing to operate what very well may be its grubbiest energy facility in the metro, the coal-fired Riverside Plant.

Back in the Warehouse District, not far from the garbage incinerator, Metro Transit buses could be seen idling at the curb, empty, on driver-training routes.

All throughout the city, a plan appeared to be in effect to address the soaring particulate count that would soil the air for four days. The plan? Do nothing.

The group of professionals who seemed most stirred to action was the media. TV and newspapers alike made much of the "perfect storm" scenario; it was actually just a stubborn mass of stagnant air. The Air Quality Index--a federal standard for measuring major pollutants--did indeed top out at contemporary highs: It hit 156 on Monday night in Minneapolis and, not long after, peaked in other cities across the upper Midwest. But particulate pollution--known as PM2.5--wasn't measured until just a few years ago, a point made by Rebecca Helgesen, a spokesperson for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. The air, she suggests, isn't necessarily any nastier than it was a decade ago.

And the state has seen similar numbers before. The AQI hit 135 on July 5, 2003, and a grimy week last February saw elevated particulate counts in the skies for four days running.

Though the skyline appeared to be shrouded behind a mildewed shower curtain, there was no reason to panic. Cities like Los Angeles and Houston routinely hit far higher numbers; the AQI scale goes all the way to 500. Public health research connects PM2.5 pollution to mortality in heart patients, and aggravation of emphysema and asthma. But a few days don't make that great a difference.

Despite epidemic levels of childhood asthma, the Minneapolis Public Schools saw no increase in absenteeism related to air quality. And most of the respiratory cases at Hennepin County Medical Center, director of pulmonology Dr. Conrad Iber says, came from the flu. In fact, on the two haziest days last week, Iber admits, he went outside for a run.

"Physiology operates on a continuum," Iber says. "We don't suddenly fall off a cliff based on a single level. Usually we develop a disease based on exposure. And I think there's no question that lower levels of exposure all your life are likely to accumulate into a problem."

It's up to public health and environmental officials, Iber explains, to figure out when these fluky days will lead to fatalities.


Near the end of many of last week's media stories, after the warnings to heart patients and asthmatics to pare back their triathlon training, came the appeal to the public. They were the same recommendations sent to an industry and public partnership called Clean Air Minnesota. Cut back on driving, the MPCA urged. Lay off the small engines, your chainsaws and snow throwers. Keep the hearth unlit for a few nights. They were fine ideas, all.

Yet the public could be forgiven for wondering what--if anything--the MPCA was telling the state's major particle emitters. Would people be surprised to learn that the MPCA's main response to a serious spike in bad air was to send these industries a mass e-mail? How many car trips to the supermarket add up to a garbage-burning plant, anyway?

Jake Smith, senior environmentalist with Hennepin County, says that the HERC emits 175 pounds of emissions each day. Though lead, mercury, dioxins, and particulates come out of the plant, they generally do so at a fraction of their permitted limits.

Still, 175 pounds sounds like a lot of unsavory stuff. (Maybe it's just the word "garbage.") Can Smith think of a time when the HERC has halted operations to limit emissions during an MPCA-declared air alert?

"No, I can't," Smith says, adding that HERC has obligations beyond air quality. "We do have performance guarantees that we have to meet, and we also have a contract with Xcel, so any kind of shutdown could result in penalties."

Smith goes on to say that the billowing plumes of smoke that one sees pouring out of the stacks are mostly hot air. Ninety-nine percent of the smoke, in fact, is water vapor that's 250 to 300 degrees. The particulate load, Smith says, "is minimal compared to the emissions you would see from just the metro buses that are running in the city."  

It's an unsporting accusation to level at Metro Transit. When it comes to our sick skies, virtually everyone (who doesn't work for the Taxpayers League) agrees that buses are part of the cure. Limiting routes during an air alert would presumably put more cars on the road. Not a good idea.

And, contrary to appearances, Metro Transit does have an idling policy, issued in October of last year. "In general," explains Bob Gibbons, director of customer services, "it says that if the temperature is above 32 degrees and if your layover time is longer than 3 minutes, then you must turn the engine of the bus off while you wait between routes."

So what about the idling and empty buses hugging the curb on Fourth Street North? An anomaly, Gibbons says, and a violation for the driver if spotted by a supervisor. Chief operating officer Vince Pellegrin adds that enforcement has tightened with climbing fuel costs. An idling bus is a fuel-gobbling bus.

Pellegrin says proudly, too, that Metro Transit has pioneered the use of ultra-low-sulfur fuel in half of the 851-vehicle fleet--some two years ahead of pending federal regulations. In the future, he says, the buses will be an even cleaner choice.

Lee Eberly, Xcel's air quality manager, is also eager to point to the future. The Riverside Plant, a stately brick giant that towers above the Mississippi, will be converting from coal to natural gas by 2009. Until then, the facility uses two bag houses--think: vacuum cleaner filters--to suck up nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide before they leave the stacks. The third Riverside unit employs an electrostatic filter to do the same job.

Xcel relies on the same technology, and operates at the same levels, when the MPCA issues an air pollution alert, Eberly says. "We have permits we have to comply with at all times."

And it turns out that Riverside wasn't operating at full tilt, anyway. Last week, units one and two were working at less than full capacity; unit three was shut down altogether for maintenance.

Air quality may have been foul last week, but Eberly's general impression about it could represent Metro Transit and the Hennepin Energy Resource Company, too. "In summary," he says of last week's alert, "Riverside has had very little or nothing to do with it per se."


If you're only a very little part of the problem during an air quality alert, apparently you needn't be part of the immediate solution. At least there are no state regulations demanding it. What there is instead is a voluntary public-private partnership called Clean Air Minnesota.

Clean Air Minnesota (CAM) comprises big businesses like 3M, Ford, and the Andersen Corporation; public entities like the City of Minneapolis and the Metropolitan Council; and nonprofits like the local chapters of the American Lung Association and the Isaak Walton League. The Chamber of Commerce is a member. So is the Pollution Control Agency. Not exactly kindred spirits, you might think.

Clean Air Minnesota's main reason for being is to keep the state in compliance with the federal Clean Air Act through voluntary conservation and emission-reduction programs. If a state is declared to be in "non-attainment" of federal standards, it must develop a rigorous response: mandatory emissions cuts from industry, for instance, or free fares for mass transit users during air alerts. CAM's website reproduces a state Chamber of Commerce claim that developing and implementing such a program would cost between $189 million and $266 million each year.

"What we want to do is to continue to meet the standards by voluntary and cooperative means," says Helgesen. "That's been the aim of Clean Air Minnesota and ours for some time now."

So by joining Clean Air Minnesota, what have the 58 member organizations volunteered to do during an air alert? Have they agreed to shut down facilities? Cut electrical demand? Pull delivery trucks off the highways?

No, no, and no. In the case of an air alert, the one and only thing that members agree to do by signing "partnership agreements" with Clean Air Minnesota is to disseminate an e-mail and educate their employees.

"During air quality alerts, we sometimes send out information to our partners making sure they pass on the alert to their employees," explains Colleen Coyne, outreach manager of Minnesota Environmental Initiative's CAM program. Specifically, the MPCA sends out some 2,000 e-mails. CAM members forward those on to a total of 110,000 souls. "Here in the office," Coyne continues, "we take certain actions. We try to decrease our energy use. We try to take the bus to avoid single-vehicle rides. And we try to model the things we want our partners to do."  

The MPCA, in other words, is telling Xcel and the HERC the same thing it's telling the public: Don't light up the fireplace; stay off the snowmobile. "It may not sound like a heck of a lot, when one person decides to take the bus instead of driving," Helgesen says. "But when 10,000 people make that decision, it can have an effect."

The public had better hope so. Because even when particulate counts reach unsettling levels, the MPCA has no additional regulations for industry. It doesn't have plans to keep drivers off the road, either.

"Clean air is our job and our mission," Helgesen says. "But there's no way one agency can do everything by itself. If individuals and companies don't care about clean air, we have no way to fix that--unless people are willing to pull the plug on their electricity and give up their vehicles. We enforce state and federal regulations. But if we said we wanted to exceed those regulations, I think you would find that the vast majority of Minnesotans would be very upset. And the Legislature would tell us that we had overstepped our bounds."

What Helgesen seems to be saying is that until Minnesota comes much closer to the bugaboo of non-attainment, the MPCA will have to content itself on bad air days with sending out bulletins.

Which leaves the state with Clean Air Minnesota and its covenant of cooperation. If the citizenry wants to know how this private-public coalition deals with air quality alerts, they might want to look at two other members in good standing: Xcel Energy and the Hennepin Energy Resource Company.

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