Many of the undersigned are healthcare workers and providers working with communities harmed by the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center (HERC). Others are researchers, public health professionals, air pollution experts, and community organizations. The HERC harms our patients, many of whom are Black, Indigenous, and/or people of color who already suffer from health inequities.
The HERC is a trash incinerator located between Downtown and North Minneapolis, where 49% of surrounding residents are low-income and 49% are people of color. These residents are cumulatively exposed to more dangerous PM2.5 particulate matter than 92% of state residents and more automobile traffic than 93% of state residents.¹ Meanwhile, the HERC burns approximately 1,000 tons of trash every day from all over Hennepin County and beyond, including wealthy suburban communities such as Wayzata and Deephaven, and in the process releases significant amounts of harmful particulate matter. The HERC is a top three emitter of nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxides, lead, and climate warming carbon dioxide. The “Life and breath: How air pollution affects public health in the Twin Cities” report from the Minnesota Department of Health details how these exposures lead to higher rates of negative health outcomes including worsening cardiovascular and respiratory disease, more hospital visits, and even premature death.² Those of us who are healthcare workers come face to face every day with the severe, negative consequences of all this pollution.
The inequality of pollution exposure is a nationwide problem. According to a study from Yale University, white people had the lowest exposure rate for 11 of 14 pollutants included in the study, while Black people had higher exposure rates than whites for 13 out of 14 pollutants.³ This trend is confirmed repeatedly — communities of color are more likely to have polluting facilities in close proximity and are more likely to suffer from adverse health effects caused by pollutants.
An analysis based on an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tool estimated that in just one year alone, the HERC’s emissions resulted in 1 to 2.3 premature deaths and $11-25 million per year in healthcare costs caused by pollution exposure.⁴ This does not take into account the individual suffering caused by respiratory exacerbations, such as: children whose caregivers are frequently hospitalized, children who can’t run and play in the unsafe air, children who miss school due to asthma attacks, and elders who can’t leave their homes because their health is more fragile than it should be. Beyond the immediate and more easily measured effects such as asthma-related hospitalizations, toxic exposures from burning trash are associated with cancer and birth defects. It’s not just the HERC itself either. To operate the HERC, there is continuous traffic of heavy-duty, diesel trucks moving the trash through a residential area. In fact, neighborhoods near the HERC see more than 200 pollution-emitting trucks every weekday plus 100 more over the weekend, just to keep the HERC operating.
We mention the traffic for another reason as well; it has been claimed that ‘mobile sources’ contribute more to the total pollution in the area than the HERC itself. However, there are many other areas in the city with similar exposure to highways and traffic that do not have the health outcomes we see around the HERC. Additionally, policymakers must take into account the cumulative impact of the HERC, and other polluting industries, when added to an already overburdened community.
Despite our knowledge of the consequences, polluting facilities continue to be intentionally built in communities where polluters assume public resistance can be most easily ignored; communities where there is little concentration of wealth and where there is already a precedent of intentional marginalization. We need a solution to the problem of trash disposal — such as decreasing use of plastics, using better materials in our products, even well regulated landfills in the meantime, but continuing to operate the HERC harms our pursuit of real solutions. Communities that are denied representation by design, though they do resist, are often ignored. The people of Minneapolis adamantly resisted the building of the HERC in the 1980s, and their demands were unheeded.
Today, as the HERC ages well past its estimated life expectancy, it is our responsibility to stand with community members who continue to say enough is enough. If we are truly committed to improving our nation and addressing the wrongs of the past, we will LISTEN this time.
We ask you to close the HERC by 2025 and implement a strong zero waste plan that protects our patients’ and communities’ health.
We, the undersigned, ask you to join us in demanding we let the people of Minneapolis BREATHE.
Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate and Minnesota Environmental Justice Table are proud members of the Zero Burn Coalition, a community coalition demanding a 2025 HERC closure date and a strong and equitable zero waste plan.