Garbage In, Garbage Out

THE TREES HAVE grown sturdy around the Hennepin County Energy Recovery Facility. Planted in the late 1980s as a "landscape buffer," they were intended to serve the same purpose as the earth-brown walls and the fancy name: to soften the exterior of downtown's biggest polluter.

It seems to have worked. Ten years ago, construction of the Minneapolis garbage burner sparked a massive environmental controversy. Now the facility's permit is headed for public hearings again. And this time, no one except the insiders seems to be paying much attention.

Actually, the burner hasn't had a current air-emissions permit for five years. It took federal and state pollution-control officials that long to work out new rules for garbage incineration, mandated under the Bush-era amendments to the Clean Air Act. State regulators are finalizing a draft permit now, and expect to start the public comment period in March.

Air-emissions permits are exactly what the name implies--official seals of approval to emit a certain volume of pollution. The Hennepin burner's permit, like most, covers only a select number of pollutants--sulfur dioxides and nitrous oxides, the main causes of acid rain; particulates, the fine dust that can cause lung disease; and a few heavy metals including mercury and lead. The new permit limits will be set lower than the current ones, regulators say. Still, according to preliminary figures prepared by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency at City Pages' request, the incinerator each year could legally blow out 84 tons of sulfur dioxide; 710 tons of nitrous oxides; 1,800 pounds of lead; 140 pounds of cadmium; and 220 pounds of mercury.

If any of those figures attracts public attention, chances are it will be the one for mercury--a toxin pollution watchers are just starting to declare a priority. Like many heavy metals, mercury accumulates in the food chain, is considered a possible carcinogen, and can alter the DNA in people's reproductive cells. In children particularly, it can harm motor skills, retard development, and change behavior. Anglers are familiar with the mercury warnings posted at countless lakes around the state.

Gary Glass, a researcher at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, has found that mercury gets into the lakes mostly from rain, which washes it out of air polluted by smokestacks. Taconite smelters are among the biggest sources, as are power plants--and, of course, garbage incinerators, which burn the mercury contained in everything from latex paints to thermostats. Interestingly, while most of Glass's numbers come from northern Minnesota, he also has preliminary data suggesting that mercury concentrations measured in the Twin Cities area were higher than those anywhere else in the state.

High mercury emissions from the Minneapolis burner made headlines early on in its operation. The county scrambled to get special equipment installed, and worked to get high-mercury items like button batteries out of the waste stream. Today the burner's mercury output runs consistently below the MPCA limit, as do its emissions of other pollutants. "It's proven to be an efficient, reliable operation," Hennepin County Administrator Jeff Spartz says with more than a hint of satisfaction.

But Spartz's old adversary, Leslie Davis, insists that lower-than-expected emissions aren't nearly good enough. "There is this phrase in the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act," he notes, "which says that if a project is causing pollution, impairment, and destruction--and I don't know how mercury wouldn't be classified as pollution and destruction--they must look at the alternatives."

That, of course, was what Hennepin County said it did back in the '80s, concluding that the only alternative was to pack its waste into leaky landfills. Davis and other environmentalists never bought it: For one thing, they've pointed out, the burner doesn't make garbage disappear, but sends it out the stack as pollution or out the door as ash. For another, they claim, the metro area is a long way from its potential when it comes to waste recycling and reduction. And finally, there's concern that an increasingly tight operating budget--the burner recently had to slash the fee it charges garbage haulers to compete with cheap out-of-state landfills--will make it harder for operators to fix or replace aging pollution-control equipment.

But those arguments are seldom heard anymore. Of half a dozen environmental groups contacted for this story, none was following the burner's permit renewal, and none was planning protests or public-input campaigns. Which means that by the time the hearings start, the lone figures of Davis and cohorts marching past the landscape trees may be all that's left of the big burner controversy.

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