Sasha Lewis-Norelle of Clean Water Action speak at a news conference on Thursday, May 18, 2023, about the Minnesota Legislature's cumulative impact bill. Credit: Andrew Hazzard | Sahan Journal

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Advocates and community organizers on Thursday celebrated robust new pollution protections for diverse and low-income neighborhoods included in the Minnesota Legislature’s sweeping climate and environment bill. 

Minnesota’s Frontline Community Protection Act creates stronger permitting requirements for facilities seeking to emit pollutants in environmental justice areas, and requires the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to evaluate existing pollution in an area when issuing a new permit. 

The bill is included in a $2 billion environment omnibus package that is expected to pass the state Senate, and be signed into law by Governor Tim Walz by Monday. The bill has successfully exited a conference committee that ironed out differences between the chambers, and the final version passed in the House Thursday afternoon.

It will make Minnesota the third state in the nation to require regulators to consider existing pollution levels in an area before approving or renewing a permit in or adjacent to an environmental justice community. This legislation is widely known as a cumulative impacts bill. 

“This is a major step forward in addressing the role large facilities play in degrading air quality and health in environmental justice communities,” said Carolina Ortiz, associate executive director of the Latin American advocacy group COPAL (Comunidades Organizando el Poder y Acción Latina). “Our Latino workers and community members, along with other low income and communities of color, have been bearing the health burden of concentrated pollution from highways, truck traffic and other industries where we live, where we work, where we pray in our communities.”

Currently, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency considers all permit applications on an individual basis, and allows emissions within prescribed levels for regulated facilities. The new law will require the agency to conduct a cumulative impact analysis of existing pollution levels in diverse and low-income neighborhoods when weighing a new permit or the renewal or expansion of an existing permit that has the potential to significantly increase local pollution. 

The agency must deny a permit if the analysis determines it will cause significant negative impacts to the area. There are exceptions for projects that are supported by people who live in the area for economic or social reasons, and that reach what is known as a community benefit agreement. 

Minnesota’s cumulative impact law will apply to the seven-county metropolitan area (Hennepin, Ramsey, Anoka, Scott, Washington, Carver, and Dakota counties), Duluth, and Rochester. The law will apply to all permitted industrial facilities and proposed facilities located inside of or within one mile environmental justice census tracts. 

The bill defines environmental justice census tracts as areas where one or more of these conditions are met: More than 40 percent of residents are people of color; 35 percent of households are low-income; or 40 percent of the population has limited English language skills. Minnesota’s tribal nations will be allowed to opt-in to the law if they desire. 

“We really want to make sure we have oversight for some of these facilities that are contributing to adverse health effects in our communities,” said Representative Fue Lee, DFL-Minneapolis, who authored the bill. 

Communities like Lee’s district in north Minneapolis experience more pollution from industrial sources along the Mississippi River, highways, and nearby facilities like the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center incinerator. That history has led to worse health outcomes and higher rates of asthma and heart disease in the area, which has a concentrated population of people of color. 

Lee has worked with district residents like Roxxanne O’Brien from the nonprofit organization, Community Members for Environmental Justice, for years on passing cumulative impact legislation into law. He proposed the bill in the past two legislative sessions. This year, with the DFL in charge of the House and Senate, it is destined for the governor’s desk. 

“We are sending a clear signal that our neighborhoods, our bodies will no longer be pollution zones,” O’Brien said. 

For climate advocates like Sophia Benrud of the Minnesota Environmental Justice Table, the law is both a reason to celebrate and the beginning of a movement toward enshrining more protections into law. 

“We really believe that our work is going to be deeply embedded in rulemaking as well. This fight is not over, organizing is not over. We have so many more legislative sessions to come and I really do think this is the start,” Benrud said. 

Andrea Lovoll, legislative director for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, grew up between two environmental justice communities—east St. Paul and north Minneapolis—and said she felt emotional seeing the cumulative impact bill passed. The environmental justice provisions in the state’s climate bill are poised to make Minnesota a leader nationwide, she believes.

“It’s going to have a ripple effect across the United States,” she said.  

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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...