At MCEA we believe in seeking justice for communities that have been harmed by historic and ongoing toxic pollution and contamination. By design and neglect, this harm has affected Black, Indigenous and other communities of color to a much greater extent than white neighborhoods. Whenever municipal development is proposed in these communities, a necessary first step is to make sure the voices of neighboring community members are engaged and respected. Key decisionmakers must invite community members to the table to work towards a goal of eliminating new, harmful sources of pollution in neighborhoods experiencing systemic pollution and poor air quality.
The East Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis is one of these communities. This neighborhood continuously ranks as having some of the worst air quality in Minneapolis, and it is still being harmed by one of the most brazen and widespread urban polluters in Minnesota history. An insecticide manufacturer at East 28th St. and Hiawatha Ave. polluted the neighborhood with arsenic from the 1930’s to the 1960’s, resulting in a massive cleanup of contaminated residential yards.
The area surrounding this Superfund site is recognized in state law as being overburdened by pollution. State law requires that no permit shall be issued by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in the area “without analyzing and considering the cumulative levels and effects of past and current environmental pollution from all sources on the environment.”
The City of Minneapolis has proposed building a new “Hiawatha Campus” adjacent to the former manufacturing site to house city offices and vehicles. The City of Minneapolis published an environmental assessment worksheet (EAW) detailing the environmental impacts of the Hiawatha Campus proposal in February 2021. MCEA filed our response to the environmental assessment worksheet on March 25, 2021.
While our response is detailed and lengthy -- nearly 200 pages -- there are a few central findings worth highlighting here. Not only did our staff determine that the City's EAW fails to address key environmental effects, as well as climate change, but also that it neglects to examine the impact its proposal would have on existing pollution in the neighborhood as required by law. Even more troubling is its "loud silence regarding the historical environmental racism the residents of the East Phillips neighborhood have endured," MCEA's response states.
"For decades, East Phillips residents have breathed some of the City’s most polluted air and have walked atop soil contaminated with frightening levels of acutely toxic chemicals ... (yet it's proposal) resigns ... (the neighborhood) to further pollution, forces residents to live adjacent to another industrial site, and ensures environmentally friendly development and opportunities are sited elsewhere," the response continues.
In addition to MCEA's response, the City was flooded with an "unprecedented amount" -- about 1,000 - of comments comments on the proposal. The mounting public pressure coupled with the persistant organizing efforts of the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute (EPNI) led the City Council to suspend work on its public works proposal as well as its vote on the project's EAW until August 5. City staff were directed to use this "pause" to work with East Phillips' residents on the development of an alternative, community-based vision for the site instead, such as EPNI's urban farm and community center proposal.
If the City wants to do the right thing, it will abandon its plans for the Roof Depot site altogether, relocate its public works department in another Ward, and allow EPNI's urban farm and community center proposal to be developed instead. Not only is it a dynamic and environmentally conscious plan, but it's the one the neighborhood wants.