“Viewpoint: Truth re-evaluation of incineration long overdue”
By Alan Muller, Red Wing
[Note: This appeared in the Red Wing Republican-Eagle on Feb 6, 2019]
I came to Red Wing in 2007 with a background in incineration: Marketing incinerators, as a consultant to the engineering department of a large chemical company, and later opposing them, on health and economic grounds. It felt strange to live in a city that was itself in the garbage incineration business and seemed to care little about the impacts on the health and pocketbooks of residents.
I also found that if I went to a meeting in St. Paul related to garbage policy, in my consulting work, there would often be a Red Wing city official asking the Pollution Control Agency to force other communities to ship more garbage to Red Wing for burning.
Why? The municipal incinerator was losing a lot of money and city officials thought burning more garbage was the answer.
I don’t know what originally caused Red Wing to get into the garbage incineration business in the early 1980s. Even a rudimentary economic analysis should have shown this to be a bad idea. Perhaps it had something to do with the S.B Foot tannery as a steam customer.
In any case, Red Wing has tried ever since to get others to subsidize its poor judgment. For example, in 2006 Red Wing passed an ordinance requiring all the garbage collected in Red Wing to be hauled to the incinerator. This caused the intervention of the Institute for Justice, which noted: “The City of Red Wing, Minn., has unconstitutionally turned its local government into a special interest protected from competition.” https://ij.org/case/pauls-industrial-garage-and-gibson-sanitation-v-city… The city lost in federal court, but in 2007 a U.S. Supreme Court decision shifted the law somewhat in favor of Red Wing’s position. https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/06pdf/05-1345.pdf
Red Wing officials have claimed that burning garbage supports “environmental goals.” This is not so. The basic chemistry of combustion tells us that every pound of garbage burned yields several pounds of ash, greenhouse gases, and health-damaging air pollutants. Red Wing officials’ real attitudes and values are revealed in this: The city burner had serious permit violations. Eventually, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took enforcement action.
My file review indicated that the sole concern of the city, including council members, was weaseling out of paying fines. Concern about the possible harmful effects of excess emissions? None.
I began to send an occasional opinion piece to the Republican-Eagle on the unwisdom of all this. To the credit of Editor Anne Jacobson, almost all of these were printed. Whether they have had any impact is unclear.
Eventually the city incinerator became so decrepit it had to be shut down in 2013. This should have triggered a re-evaluation of Red Wing’s involvement in garbage burning, but it did not. Instead, the city transferred its affections to the Xcel Energy garbage burners on Fifth Street.
Xcel is one of the few utilities in the U.S. to be in the garbage-burning business, with burners in Red Wing, Mankato, and La Crosse. These burners are the highest cost and most polluting of Xcel facilities. [Per units of amounts of electricity generated.]
In 2017 the main city garbage building, housing the dead city incinerator and other garbage operations, burned up. Why? Although fires in garbage piles are common, Public Works staff had shut down the fire alarms and didn’t maintain a human fire watch. This negligence cost millions, and, again, should have triggered a re-evaluation of just why Red Wing is in the garbage business. Yet again, this did not happen.
Recently, the Public Works Department, in a report to the City Council, claimed as an accomplishment that Hastings’ garbage would be coming to Red Wing for burning. (“Secured delivery of MSW tonnages from City of Hastings beginning in 2019”) Just how this could benefit city residents is unstated, but benefit to residents does not seem to be a focus of the City Council.
Eleven years after I started to follow this, the city of Red Wing has apparently learned nothing. I think it must be related to a “Company Town” mentality of letting others do the thinking and decision-making. People don’t get more democracy, or better government, than they insist on, and Red Wing residents just don’t demand very much. It’s scary to think about the quality of information on environmental matters served up in Red Wing schools.
In fairness, the city of Red Wing isn’t the only offender here. The state of Minnesota through the Pollution Control Agency gives astoundingly bad guidance, and Goodhue County—counties are largely assigned responsibility for managing waste under state law—seems way behind the 8-ball. I will write another two episodes on state and county issues.
It’s long past time for people to wake up and assert themselves.