Nature Nut: Once feared, now garbage burner is revered

I remember the announcement that Olmsted County was going to build an incinerator next door to Quarry Hill. Technically called a Waste to Energy facility, either way I didn't see it being too compatible with Quarry Hill.

So, before it opened I strongly suggested that the county do some baseline soil testing so in the future we might have something to compare with and draw conclusions about what was coming out of their smokestack.

With help from then-county board member Jean Michaels, the baseline testing was approved. Over quite a few years, samples were taken to compare to it, without anything showing up to cause concern. So, it wasn't long after the facility opened that I took a tour and recall being amazed at the amount of trash coming in. I remember being especially enamored with the gigantic claws that transferred the waste from a huge concrete lined pit into the furnace where it burned and created enough heat to run two large steam generators.

I recalled as a youth taking our garbage that we didn't burn in our backyard barrel to the 'dump' overlooking the Zumbro River near Elton Hills Drive. It later moved further north across from the Watson soccer complex before the opening of the Oronoco landfill.

After investigating further how the County handled solid wastes, I decided burning it sure looked better than burying it in the ground, especially so near a river where the chemicals in the garbage could migrate. So, I thought we should try to educate people about their waste, and the best way I knew was through the kids.


With an education proposal accepted by the county, we started teaching Quarry Hill classes at the new Waste-to-Energy facility. There we toured the plant and nearby Recycling Center, having students see waste handling firsthand, answering a series of questions on their data sheets. Although often running nine groups a day on a tiring up-and-down tour of the facility, I enjoyed seeing the kids seemingly as excited about the giant claw as I was on my first trip.

Those classes have continued being offered to thousands of students yearly, now 30 years after the plant opened. According to John Helmers, director of environmental resources for the County, this is still an important part of their solid waste education. He noted how opening the Waste to Energy facility was partnered with other solid waste initiatives, including recycling, household hazardous wastes, and composting, all of which have changed over the years.

A couple of those changes John spoke of are the reduction of mercury being burned from 200 pounds 30 years ago to less than 3 pounds per year now, and the reclaiming of energy from previously buried garbage by digging it up and burning it. He also pointed out Minnesota is a "leader in waste handling with seven burners that produce electricity in the state," compared to one in Iowa and two in Wisconsin.

John noted many businesses in Iowa even contract to have some of their waste handled by Olmsted County. One of the things I was surprised to hear from John was that solid waste handling in the county is not funded at all by local tax money, but instead through tipping fees haulers pay after collecting fees from businesses and residents.

I asked John why we have six to eight different garbage and recycling trucks in every neighborhood, including the cul de sac in front of my house. He said that under their contract "the county cannot participate in any effort to go to another system," perhaps one in which haulers divide up the city. Even though data shows cost savings to residents of 25 percent or more in cities where this is done, for some reason many people highly value being able to choose their garbage man.

Hopefully there will come a time when we have no garbage, but instead everything is either re-used, recycled, or composted. But, for now, the Waste-to-Energy burner, and the rest of the county's solid waste management, seems like a good alternative. If you want a closer look, tours of the plant will be offered to the public from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. April 22 — appropriately, Earth Day.

What To Read Next
Get Local