Environmental Justice in North Minneapolis

Photo by Sarah Whiting

Tishawn Penny is energetic; she gives the first impression of a woman fresh out of college with the world at her fingertips. “I’m young on the outside,” she says, “but old on the inside.” At 32, this single, black, North Minneapolis mom raises three kids who all have some combination of allergies, asthma, developmental delays and behavioral disorders. “When I found out I was pregnant, I wanted to be as healthy as I could,” Penny says. “I started learning about healthy environments.” 

Penny got into yoga, started growing her own organic food and bought natural cleaners. She watched documentaries, went to the library and started understanding the cause and effects of climate change. 

Despite her clean living, one by one, her kids developed allergies and asthma. “We don’t have it in my family. I don’t know where it is coming from,” says Penny wiping away a tear. “Why do my kids have to go to the hospital all night with rashes, breathing problems, headaches? Sometimes the air smells so bad, we can’t even walk outside.” 

With community involvement, Penny discovered what many suspected for years: Americans as a whole breathe easier, but North Minneapolis’s air is polluted. In 2014, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency began air pollution monitoring near the Lowery Bridge. High pollution rates prompted the installation of another area monitor in 2015. Subsequent reports cite repeated elevated levels of airborne particulates and heavy metals when compared to other Twin Cities monitoring sites, and at rates concerning to the Minnesota Department of Health. 

The Ugly Truth

Jillia Pessenda, a 2017 candidate for Minneapolis City Council in Ward 1 is clear, “The City of Minneapolis has historically sited industrial polluters in poor, communities of color. It is time we advocate for environmental justice and affect change at a local level,” she says. 

This history is not unique. In the early 1980s, environmental justice activists coined a new term – environmental racism – as people suspected that polluting facilities were most often constructed in communities of color with fewer economic means because residents lacked the political connections, expertise, money and information to protect their health and environment. And they were right. 

In 1983, Congress’s General Accounting Office reported that three-quarters of hazardous waste landfills in 8 states were located in poor black and Latino communities. In 1987, the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice reported that race was the single determining factor in where toxic waste facilities were built in the U.S. In 2014, the University of Minnesota found that people of color are exposed to 38 percent higher levels of nitrogen dioxide compared to white people. 

“Intolerance and racism has been exposed in a very ugly way,” says Dr. Rose Brewer, University of Minnesota Professor of Afro-American & African Studies and author of “The Color of Wealth.” “Environmental justice is a coming together of race, gender, housing, education, health, income and political inequality.” Brewer’s solution is that these communities need to become self-determining by building critical mass through political education and reconnecting youth to the legacy of their lands. Control needs to be with the people, not the corporations, to protect human rights. [[In-content Ad]]

Taking the lead

The environmental conversation has traditionally been dominated by a few large nonprofits, with platforms of wilderness and endangered species protection. The environmental justice movement is grassroots, working from the bottom up, with women at the forefront. 

As Penny and other mothers across North and Northeast Minneapolis continue to tell their stories, aided with technical know-how from nonprofits such as Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy and Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, the conversation grows. “Women are the environmental warriors,” Pessenda says. “When women lead, we take others with us.” 

Tired of waiting for corporate responsibility or government enforcement to take action, the East Side Environmental Quality of Life (EEQL) formed as an offshoot of the Bottineau Neighborhood Association (BNA) to pay for and execute their own census tract environmental impact study. BNA wanted to definitively answer the question of whether North Minneapolis residents on both sides of the river were dying from air pollution. After analyzing 19 years of Minnesota Department of Health vital statistics, researchers concluded that residents died from air pollution at a 330 percent higher rate when compared to residents with similar demographics but displaced from industry polluters. Cancer deaths were 310 percent higher. Asthma deaths were 844 percent higher. 

With community pressure and new data, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency reached a settlement with one emissions permit violator, Northern Metals Recycling, who will cease Minneapolis operations by 2019 and pay $2.5 million in penalties. Nancy Przymus, BNA’s Neighborhood Coordinator, says their work is not done. They continue to work with government officials and agencies to reduce emissions from other suspected polluters, such as a manufacturer of commercial and residential roofing, which smelts asphalt. EEQL is engaging in a next stage of research to determine the extent of cancer illnesses among living residents. 

For Penny, even environmental gains come with emotional losses and unanswered questions. To her, 2019 seems like a long way off, and she’s worried what will happen to the land when Northern Metals Recycling closes. “Is the land contaminated? Will the plant just get boarded and locked up?” she asks. “What we need is a park. Why don’t my kids deserve green space to walk and fresh air to breathe?” 

Neighborhoods Organizing for Change mnnoc.org
Bottineau Neighborhood Association bottineauneighborhood.org