Nosy neighbor

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February 16, 2004 // UPDATED 2:55 pm - April 24, 2007
By: Tom Carothers
Tom Carothers

The Minneapolis ballpark site has many advantages, but the nearby garbage burner is a P.R. headache. How real are fans' fears of smell and pollution?

If you listen to Hennepin County, the prospective site for a Downtown ballpark sounds like a dandy.

It has over 23,000 parking spaces with easy freeway access, 3,000 hotel rooms, and a vast array of restaurants and numerous watering holes nearby for those who don't feel like driving home.

Add the couple hundred thousand "potential fans" who work within a short walk of the proposed retractable-roof marvel, and you have a recipe for certain success, right?

All except for that next-door neighbor -- the incinerator.

St. Paul boosters mention the "garbage burner" at every opportunity, gleefully attaching the adjective "smelly." Even Minneapolis fans can't help but wonder if the ballpark site is Ground Zero for odors and toxic emissions.

"Sure, I think about it," said Jim Bailey, wearing his Twins hat while shopping Downtown. "Being next to something that burns garbage umpteen times a day raises a worry in a lot of people's minds."

Hennepin County boosters dismiss such fears.

"Frankly, it's a red herring argument," Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said. "It'll be a great neighbor."

Civic leaders point to many practical uses of having the Hennepin Energy Resource Co. (HERC) as it is officially known, next door. From heating, to lighting, to easy trash disposal, HERC is viewed as just another practical segment of a superior site plan.

But for now, the question lingers: will the burner stink up the ballpark site?

Neighbors' noses know

Representatives of five businesses in the shadow of the burner generally agree that it gets a bit ripe from time to time.

One business owner, who asked to remain nameless because public statements about the burner could hurt his business, said, "When it gets hot in the summer, it's bad. Except for the smell, it's okay; but it did stink badly during the summer."

According to George Brunet of Weather Rite, Inc., 616 N. 5th St., "It's kind of a different smell; it doesn't really bother me though. Of course, being on the northwest side, the prevailing winds favor us."

The problem for many Twins fans is that the prevailing winds Brunet speaks of carry right over the stadium site, which is southeast of HERC.

Carl Michaud, a Hennepin County Solid Waste division manager, states that the city of Minneapolis has received only five formal complaints about foul emissions since 1995, including a three-year run without a single complaint from 1998 to 2001. (There were no complaints to Hennepin County, Michaud added.)

He said that any odor the neighbors smell could come from two sources. One is the 100 or so trucks that deliver garbage to HERC each day. Some haul containers of compressed restaurant food waste and "putrid substances [can] leak out of compactor boxes on occasion," Michaud said.

Smell could also escape from trash waiting to be burned. Michaud said trucks dump their loads inside. Odors are kept in HERC's interior by negative air pressure -- air flows from outside the burner to fire the mammoth boilers inside. Still, Michaud added, "if it's a very windy day and the doors are open because trucks are coming into the tip floor, I'm not going to say 100 percent of the air stays in there."

He said Hennepin County "is looking at some additional things" to further reduce smell, such as an airlock separating the burner's interior from the outside, or tighter monitoring of compactor boxes that may be leaking.

Most North Loop business owners were quick to point out that while the smell may occasionally be troublesome, they hope that will not drive the stadium away. For one thing, they are Twins fans. For another, they hope to benefit from an assumed windfall that a new stadium would bring.

"I hope they build it here," Brunet said. "It'd be great for property values!"

Toxics

Smell may be the immediate concern, but toxic emissions are a longer-term gremlin that plays on some minds.

As civic leaders from both Downtown and Hennepin County charged ahead with their ballpark proposal in January, some of the very choir to which they were preaching on the IDS Center's 50th floor stared down at the stadium site and spoke hesitantly about HERC's proximity.

Downtown Council President and CEO Sam Grabarski jauntily reassured the crowd. "The only way it doesn't work is if we throw the opposing pitchers into it," he said. "There's no worry. It's high-temperature burning; there are no worries about particulates."

Hennepin County's Michaud says that's true because the garbage is burned at temperatures upwards of 1,400 degrees, then scrubbers filter out harmful substances that remain. (The toxic remains are landfilled.)

Said Michaud, "There are state and federal standards on the emissions from the stacks, and this plant is well below the limit. It's the result of complete combustion and the air pollution control equipment -- lime to control acid gases and carbon to control the mercury; and there's a bag house, which captures all the particles.

"It's not until all those particles are captured that it goes out of the stack."

As far as the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) is concerned, HERC has a clean bill of health.

"I can only say that we haven't been asked to look at any issues by the city," said MPCA staffer Rick Strassman. "We haven't been asked to deploy monitors to measure the air we're breathing off their property."

He said that while lead emissions were a major concern when the facility went online in 1989, there have been no major air quality hazards linked directly to the facility.

"We've monitored lead concentrations in the city for years, and basically lead in the city is almost at a nondetectable level both before and after the incinerator went online," Strassman said. "There's nothing in the monitoring data where there's a red flag going up saying, 'it's the incinerator.'"

HERC exceeded its mercury limit in its early years, but the county implemented battery recycling and installed new scrubbers that have since reduced emissions by 90 percent, according to Hennepin County data, to about 3 percent of its permitted level.

Some may look at the burner's tall stack and assume pollution must rain on Downtown, but the stack's very height actually minimizes nearby danger. Pollutants are emitted high enough that they actually drift beyond Downtown; wind studies done around the time the burner opened predicted particulates would settle, if anywhere, on the city's north side and in south Minneapolis's Phillips neighborhood.

HERC's neighboring business owners say they simply don't worry about emissions. Buck Palmer, owner of Palmer Automotive, 600 N. 5th St, was very simple in his assessment: "The incinerator never hurt anyone at all."

Not going anywhere

Hennepin County and Downtown leaders may still have some work to do to convince their own populace -- much less the state -- that their ballpark location is the "vastly superior site for the team, the fans and the state," as Grabarski puts it.

However, HERC will continue doing the job it was meant to do, burning garbage to produce electricity. McLaughlin says that the County has been looking into ways of trapping the heat currently going to waste through the stacks and using that to heat area buildings -- perhaps even a stadium.

Ballpark or no, the MPCA's Strassman says that Downtown is just going to have to get used to the fact that the facility won't be going anywhere for a while.

"Even if you put a ballpark next to it, it's still going to be there. It's an incinerator and it's got this stigma attached to it," he said. "Whether we agree that it should be in that location will probably be debated for ages. Anyways, I don't know if anyone would seriously want to pick it up and move it."