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Feb 29, 2024

Blog Post: MPCA Should Do More to Eradicate Environmental Racism in Minnesota

By: Eric Ini, MCEA Chief Equity and Partnership Officer and Nazir Khan, Minnesota Environmental Justice Table

The United States has a history of racism and segregation, and Minnesota is no exception. Many cities across the United States, including the Twin Cities, have segregated neighborhoods built through racist zoning patterns and maintained through structural inequities. And due to these same inequities, toxic industries and sites have disproportionately been located in these very same neighborhoods. These are “sacrifice zones.” And the people who live in them are being sacrificed every day for corporate profits, or so that wealthy, white communities can be less polluted.

The Flint Water Crisis in Michigan, Cancer Alley in Louisiana, and the Arsenic Triangle in East Phillips, Minnesota all have one thing in common: The residents of these communities are predominantly Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). This is not a coincidence but premeditated to be this way. This is environmental racism. Here in Minnesota, our Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) has a critical role to play in advancing environmental justice for these communities.

As we celebrate Black History Month, we reflect on the injustices that Black people in America -- and Minnesota in particular -- have undergone throughout history. This includes environmental injustice, and we call on our government agencies like the MPCA to take stronger actions to eradicate environmental racism in Minnesota.

The MPCA has the authority to prevent and limit pollution caused by businesses, organizations and individuals to protect human health and the environment in all neighborhoods in Minnesota. 

Unfortunately, while pollution has been controlled in some neighborhoods without the need for protest, in others -- even after several years of protest and calling for action from state government --pollution levels are still very high, and most residents suffer from pollution related illnesses. The inhabitants in these neighborhoods are almost always disproportionately Black, Indigenous, and people of color. 

The Minnesota Department of Health found in a recent study that “structural inequities such as systemic racism, housing insecurity, discrimination in healthcare, and other social and economic stressors, contribute to unequal health burdens of air pollution.” The study also found that “communities in Greater Minnesota with higher percentages of low-income residents, Black, Indigenous or People of Color (BIPOC) residents have the highest estimated air pollution-related death and disease rates.”

The MPCA is aware of this information; the Agency has evaluated the disproportionate effects of air pollution in Minnesota and concluded that “91% of Minnesotan communities of color and Indigenous communities and 46% of low-income communities are above the air pollution-related risk guidelines compared to 31% statewide.” 

The question many people living in Black neighborhoods are asking is that, with such knowledge, why has the MPCA not acted adequately to reduce pollution in their communities?


We also find inspiration in Black history. If we can open ourselves to it, especially those of us who are not Black (including one of the authors), we can glimpse the kind of hope we need in this moment where we all stare into the abyss of apocalypse. We can learn from the long and mighty struggle of Black people against their specific apocalypse for freedom, justice, dignity, equal treatment, safety, and well-being. And in a place that launched a global uprising for justice when the police murdered George Floyd– where so many people rose up to say “Enough!”-- we put forward that Black struggle is one major pillar of an existential struggle for our entire species.

Our lives, our futures, our collective liberation, are bound together by the air we all breathe, the river we choose to desecrate or protect, and the biosphere we all depend upon for our very survival. Sacrifice zones do not just kill BIPOC people. By allowing them to continue, by allowing greed and racism to conquer the sacredness and dignity of life, we doom all of ourselves.

The MPCA defines environmental justice as the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, concerning the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies. This is a commitment the MPCA has made to people of Minnesota living in environmental justice census tracts which are predominantly Black and brown people. 

Communities of color today do not experience “fair treatment.” The facts plainly bear this out. Bad air impacts 91% of BIPOC communities. That’s not fair. “Fair treatment” means that Black families, Indigenous families, and families of color can expect to breathe clean air, just like most of the rest of Minnesota’s residents. And MPCA, in committing to environmental justice, has an important role to play – transforming the regulatory framework, monitoring and finding the sources of air pollution, listening to communities and investigating complaints, strongly enforcing violations of permits and laws, advocating for pollution reduction, and supporting communities seeking to rid their neighborhoods of large polluters and bad actors. 

For the MPCA to make progress on reversing existing disparities and ensure a fair and equal environment, it must also embrace the goal of meaningful involvement. It has to involve people of color in the entire process of developing, implementing and enforcing environmental laws and policies. It must listen to the people who have been sacrificed for so long. So many Black people have submitted complaints, protested, got arrested, written articles, and fought back in countless ways against being poisoned, killed, and exploited. Yet, our state agencies and governments have mostly ignored them. This is why the statistics above remain so glaring. Time and time again, the science “catches up” to their experience – whether it is the Flint water crisis, the HERC trash burner, highways destroying their communities, or countless other issues. Like canaries in a coal mine, it turns out their protest and warning was for all of us. 

BIPOC communities must especially be involved in the implementation and enforcement process of environmental laws and policies, and their concerns and experience must be genuinely heeded. Addressing environmental injustices – both historic and contemporary – requires a change of mindset within our governmental agencies. In some cases, it’s a complete 180 reversal.

The MPCA should adopt a precautionary principle  and ditch the idea that “negligible health impacts” or “safe limits” protect people in already impacted, frontline communities. It must not only stop granting new permits but help communities shut existing facilities down when  the cumulative impacts of all surrounding sources show that the health of residents is adversely impacted. The new cumulative impacts law, after decades of protest from frontline communities, is a good step forward but will take significant leadership and advocacy from within the MPCA to have any meaningful impact on the ground. The communities that have been sacrificed in the past demand and deserve just that from their government. 

For the MPCA to play its role in eradicating environmental racism, it must meaningfully involve impacted communities in the entire environmental law and policies process, which includes development, implementation and enforcement. Communities need to be involved deeply and robustly in the enforcement process, and this means allocating resources for capacity building so that community members can engage with the MPCA.

Meaningful involvement increases transparency and is the beginning of building trust. That trust is a necessary foundation toward eradicating environmental racism in Minnesota, ensuring that all Minnesotans are treated fairly when it comes to the air they breathe, and rooting us all in the wisdom and urgent first hand expertise of those on the frontlines of this accelerating emergency. For we must finally register that the survival and well-being of those on the frontlines are the key to our collective survival and well-being.