Debate over proposed NE hazardous waste facility rages on

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March 15, 2013 // UPDATED 3:52 pm - March 18, 2013
By: Ben Johnson
The site of the proposed hazardous waste facility in Northeast at 26th & University.
Kristin Lebben
Ben Johnson

Neighborhood activists continue to fight Hennepin County’s beleaguered proposal to build a Household Hazardous Waste facility on the corner of 26th and University in Northeast. 

On March 12 Hennepin County Commissioner Linda Higgins and Director of Hennepin County Environmental Services Carl Michaud met with about two dozen members of Don’t Dump On Northeast (DDONE), an activist group that stands in fierce opposition to the building. The parties had a lively discussion on a number of issues regarding the facility, and it appears that Higgins is at least tepidly committed to moving forward with the county’s plans.

“This is one of the many things on the whiteboard in my office right now, along with many other complicated projects,” said Higgins, who offered no timeline for the county to make a decision on the project.

Hennepin County has been trying to build a facility in Minneapolis that collects household hazardous wastes like paint, fuel and batteries for almost a decade. Currently there are two such facilities in the county, one in Brooklyn Park and one in Bloomington.

According to Michaud, the need for a household hazardous waste facility in Minneapolis was identified in 2004 using zip code data collected from the users of the county’s two other facilities.

“What we’ve done is identify a location based on zip codes that aren’t going to Brooklyn Park or Bloomington,” said Michaud. “We showed the [Minneapolis] public works the data we had, they looked at locations, then we matched that up with where the proper zoning was located and this was one of the best places we found.” 

City Council Member Kevin Reich (1st Ward) said that Minneapolis’ usage rates for the other hazardous waste facilities were “shockingly low, we’re talking single digit participation,” and Higgins called the usage rates “pathetically low,” adding “something needs to be done, the sooner the better.”  

Previously there were two failed attempts to purchase other sites in Minneapolis. In 2007 a property at 620 Malcolm Ave SE in the Prospect Park neighborhood was ultimately deemed too expensive, and in 2008 a property at 701 Industrial Blvd on the outskirts of Minneapolis bordering Lauderdale was pursued before the seller took it off the market.

In 2010 Minneapolis bought the current proposed site at 340 27th Ave. NE and has since then it has met strong resistance from DDONE, which points out its close proximity to residential areas is unusual for such a facility and unacceptable to the neighborhood.

DDONE also contested that the site’s current I2 zoning was insufficient for its original proposed uses, but lost their appeal to the Minneapolis Zoning Board. Later they took their case to court, but it was thrown out because no specific formal proposal has been put forward by the county.

Originally the facility was proposed to accept overflow garbage from the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center (HERC) downtown and replace the aging Southside Transfer Station, in addition to serving as a Household Hazardous Waste collection site. The latest plans, which were discussed informally at the March 12 meeting, only include the household hazardous waste aspect, most likely due to the legal zoning questions and neighborhood opposition raised by DDONE.

DDONE members advocated alternative solutions that would save the taxpayers much of the $10 million price tag the facility is budgeted for, as well as save officials the headache from the rabblerousing constituency.

“Why won’t the city and the county just listen to its citizens and be open to more creative solutions?” asked one DDONE member at the March 12 hearing. “There’s other, more efficient, less harmful solutions out there.”

One of those proposals called for a more permanent form of the semi-annual neighborhood hazardous waste collections that take place around the Twin Cities metro. Several DDONE members reasoned that if a trailer was available every Saturday for hazardous waste pickup at a local retailer like Menard’s or Home Depot, a permanent facility would not be necessary.

Michaud countered that Minneapolis used to hold 10-12 of those events a decade ago, but due rising costs (he estimated one event costs about $100,000) and difficulty finding hosts for the sites they have had to trim these neighborhood collections to 3-5 per year.

“These events are very popular, but to get a level of participation to make it meaningful at the price it would take, along with the logistics it would take — it makes the $10 million upfront cost look like peanuts over time,” added Reich.

Members of DDONE are also aggravated because they feel Northeast Minneapolis has been unfairly targeted for these unwanted industrial waste facilities. There have been four sites considered for the hazardous waste facility, and they all lay on the east side of the Mississippi River.

“We believe the City chose our working class neighborhood due to its past image as a ‘dumping ground’ for facilities unwanted elsewhere and because they assumed we had little political influence and no ability or capacity to organize to defend our community,” stated a press release from DDONE in December 2011.

Reich disagrees with that perception, calling it “unfounded,” and later stating that the decision to look on the east side of the river “has more to do with the historical land use that predates most of our homes.” Reich voted against the DDONE’s appeal of the zoning board’s decision two years ago.

Still, DDONE insists that if there is such a need for facility in Minneapolis, it should be more centrally located within the city. They argued that the current proposed location would be more convenient for Anoka County residents in neighboring Columbia Heights than it would for many Minneapolis residents.

“We hear over and over again that if we build it they will come. There’s absolutely no scientific or logical data that supports that,” said Gayle Bonneville, a member of DDONE. “This proposed location will be a huge failure, and a waste of taxpayer money.”

Michaud, however, believes that the environmental concerns raised by DDONE may be overblown and that the term household hazardous materials may sound scarier than it is.

“This is material that homeowners have in their houses and garages today,” said Michaud. “Paint, gasoline, florescent lights, batteries, electronic gear — all of this is stuff that homeowners use in their homes.”

He later clarified that at the proposed facility these materials are simply broken down, sorted, stored and later shipped out for further recycling.