Garbage prospers in the Minnesota Legislature

Photo of Senator Scalze

Sen. Bev Scalze


[This was my testimony on March 10, 2015, to the Senate Environment and Energy Committee on S.F. 1132.  My statement was not prepared in advance and may have varied a little from this after-the-fact writeup. The authors of S.F. 1132 are listed as Senators Scalze, Ingebrigtsen, Saxhaug, Benson, and Schmit.  Scalze appeared to be the manager of the bill. She said repeatedly that “it came from the counties.”  She also said repeatedly that “the hauler community” (garbage haulers) had input.  During the meeting Scalze seemed to consult closely with one Trudy Richter, who she also presented as a witness on behalf of the Solid Waste Management Coordinating Board, a joint powers board closely associated with the incineration industry. Ms. Richter is Executive Director of the state garbage incineration lobby group.  Audio recordings are available here.  Consideration of S.F. 1132 began in the morning session and continued in the afternoon.]

Mr Chair and Senators:

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on this bill.  In the last few years I’ve had the opportunity to work with individuals and organizations in Minnesota who have wanted to improve waste management practices and protect themselves from the health hazards of undesirable activities such as incineration.  So that is my point of view on this bill–will it be helpful to residents and communities.

S. F. 1132 seems derived somewhat from a recent report from the Legislative Auditor.  Regrettably, the Legislative Auditor does not seem to have included a citizens’ or public interest perspective in the report.  For example, for several years people in Minneapolis fought a drawn-out battle to prevent expanded garbage burning at the HERC incinerator in downtown Minneapolis.  To do this, they had to fight Hennepin County, owner of the incinerator, Covanta, operator of the incinerator, the Pollution Control Agency, relentless promoter of more burning, and other powerful interests.  The success of this effort had a lot to do with the present progress in Minneapolis towards raising its very low recycling rate, collecting organics for composting, and so on.  No one would have learned anything about this from reading the report of the Legislative Auditor.  And, frankly, this citizen/public interest perspective also seems lacking in S.F. 1132.

At one time it could have been said that Minnesota was a leader in recycling, with a statewide rate approaching 40 percent.  But recycling rates stagnated years ago, as has been noted by the MPCA and others.  It makes sense to consider why this is and how it might be corrected.  I see two main causes:

The unfortunate diversion of waste tax revenues into the general fund deprived counties of revenues needed to continue developing recycling programs.  The provisions of S.F. 1132 intended to restore waste program funding are very welcome.

The other key cause, which you might be less anxious to hear about, is the extraordinarily misguided influence of the MPCA.  To understand why this matters so much, consider that the PCA has it’s finger in the waste management pie at many levels.

    • The MPCA has a policy making role.  For example, the agency is authorized to establish an enforceable Metro Solid Waste Plan without the usual Minnesota rulemaking requirements;
    • The MPCA is a grantmaker, a funder of waste management facilities throughout the state.  I believe it inherited this role when the Office of Environmental Assistance was merged into the PCA;
    • The MPCA carries out environmental review (pursuant to the Minnesota Environmental Policy Act) of waste management projects; and
    • The MPCA is responsible for the permitting of waste facilities such as dumps and incinerators, and for the enforcement of those permits.

There are many potential conflicts of interest in these multiple roles.  So. if the PCA is off the rails, inevitably waste management throughout Minnesota will be off the rails.  I am here today to tell you, in the unlikely event you don’t already know it, that the PCA is off the rails on garbage.  The agency has relentlessly framed waste management issues in terms of dumping vs burning, relentlessly promoting its institutional preference for burning (incineration).  Recycling has been grossly neglected.

Here is an example from Goodhue County, where I live:  The agency has withheld “SCORE” funds, intended to fund recycling activities, from the County in order to force Goodhue County to enact an ordinance forcing all the garbage generated in the county to go to an incinerator in Red Wing–a converted coal plant from the 1940s with a permit expired since 2009.  I live in Red Wing and don’t care to breathe the additional pollutants caused by burning more garbage.  And I don’t think the residents of Goodhue County want to bear the additional costs of this scheme without any resulting benefits.  A couple of months ago I attended a meeting of the Goodhue County board.  Two of the Commissioners expressed, in loud voices, the opinions that they were experiencing “blackmail” and “extortion” from the MPCA.  They were correct.  One pointed out that the MPCA was withholding funds used to operate recycling programs.  Is this how to increase recycling?

Minnesota law contains a “waste hierarchy.”  The actual word used in the statute is “preference:”

The following waste management practices are in order of preference:

(1) waste reduction and reuse;

(2) waste recycling;

(3) composting of source-separated compostable materials, including but not limited to, yard waste and foodwaste ;

(4) resource recovery through mixed municipal solid waste composting or incineration;

(5) land disposal which produces no measurable methane gas or which involves the retrieval of methane gas as a fuel for the production of energy to be used on site or for sale; and

(6) land disposal which produces measurable methane and which does not involve the retrieval of methane gas as a fuel for the production of energy to be used on site or for sale.

Whether you call it a hierarchy or a preference, it is clear that at the TOP are reduction and reuse, recycling, and composting.  At the BOTTOM are dumping and burning.  Repeatedly over the past few years I have heard MPCA officials claim they are required by the “hierarchy” to promote incineration.  But this is contrary to the plain wording of the statute.

So I recommend to you that you add some simple wording like this to SF 1132:

“The Pollution Control Agency and other state and local entities dealing with waste shall, consistent with Section 115A.02(b), shall focus their waste management efforts on the top three elements of the waste management preferences.”

I could say a great deal more but will stop here.  Adding this language to S.F. 1132 could do a lot of good.  Please seriously consider it.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify.  I will be happy to try to answer any questions.

[The committee members did not have any questions nor did they choose to make any changes in the bill.]

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