Community organizer Joe Vital explains the reasons behind starting the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute, which hopes to turn the property into an urban farm and community hub. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Everyone knows about East Phillips. 

Federal, state, county, and municipal governments have documented issues of air pollution and soil contamination in the south Minneapolis neighborhood. Policymakers know that more than 70 percent of the neighborhood’s residents are people of color, and more than 30 percent speak a foreign language at home. They know the area is home to the largest urban Native American community in the nation. They know asthma rates and heart disease prevalence are higher in East Phillips than in the Twin Cities at large. 

The neighborhood contains a former federal superfund site and a state-declared environmental justice area; it also lies entirely within the city of Minneapolis’ southside Green Zone. That’s a special designation that says the area should prioritize green infrastructure and community control. 

All those familiar facts—the demographics, the pollution history, the special environmental designations—played out this year in an ongoing debate on development. In November, the Minneapolis City Council moved forward with plans to expand its public works campus on an old Sears warehouse site in the neighborhood, over objections from an organized group of residents. Locals wanted to buy the warehouse and create a hub of urban farming, affordable housing, business, and community space.

We have covered the East Phillips story throughout 2021, and I believe it presents a good example of the frustrations many environmental justice advocates feel. The core elements of the story appear in other environmental issues across the state. 

From the Line 3 pipeline to disparities in farmland access between whites and people of color, environmental justice issues are well documented in Minnesota. Elected officials often acknowledge these disparities. There are a fair number of state and local programs that aim to chip away at these equality gaps, and many of those initiatives make some headway. 

But for many in the environmental justice movement, the actions are too small and the pace is too slow. 

Here are five of our stories from 2021 that we feel highlight the state of environmental justice in Minnesota. Thank you for reading this year, and here’s to a greener, healthier, happier 2022. 

While working on this story, I interviewed Cassandra Holmes, a Little Earth resident who lost her teenage son to a heart condition that’s known to be exacerbated by air pollution. I was touched by her commitment to staying in her Minneapolis community and trying to make improvements there. I was also struck by her frustration in dealing with committees created by the city to listen to locals.

Like East Phillips, much of north Minneapolis along the Mississippi River has been a site for polluting industry, most famously Northern Metals, a scrap recycler. Both fall within city Green Zones, where the priority is to reduce pollution and enhance community control. But longtime participants and the city’s own program manager have expressed frustration with the process. Now groups are pressuring the City Council to invest in a Green Zone community development fund. 

The Metropolitan Council maintains a tool that maps heat islands in the Twin Cities. You can see clusters of low vegetation such as downtown St. Paul or the international airport. But something else stuck out to me. The redlining maps—which identify neighborhoods where Black, Jewish, and other religious and ethnic minorities couldn’t buy homes in the early 20th century—still overlap with heat islands today.

By the time a massive Line 3 protest reached Minnesota’s capitol building, the pipeline pumping tar sand oil through the northwoods to Lake Superior was nearly complete. But interviewing activists that day, I also noted the persistence of hope at that protest: Governor Tim Walz or President Joe Biden should use their executive authority to shut it down. 

Oil flows through the new Line 3 today, but people continue to pressure the government to stop the pipeline. And a court case against the pipeline continues on behalf of wild rice, a sacred food to the Anishinaabe people, whose cultivation near Line 3 may be protected by treaty.

I drove down to a union hall parking lot in Dakota County to watch members of the Hmong American Farmers Association attend an information session with highway engineers. There, I heard their fear about losing some of the farmland they’ve worked so hard to own and manage for their community. The farm is a special place for Hmong family farmers: Like many people of color, they’ve faced barriers to accessing farmland in Minnesota. 

In December, the organization officially became the owners of their plot along Highway 52. They celebrated that victory, but may need to start defending their land immediately.

Andrew Hazzard is a staff reporter with Sahan Journal who focuses on climate change and environmental justice issues. After starting his career in daily newspapers in Mississippi and North Dakota, Andrew...