Clockwise from top: Canadian wildfires caused poor air quality in the Twin Cities in 2021, the Roof Depot site in south Minneapolis in February 2023, and community members protest the Northern Metal Recycling facility in 2021. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

A bill proposed in the Minnesota Legislature would provide polluted, disadvantaged areas with stronger regulatory protections against new sources of contamination. 

The bill, known as the Frontline Communities Protection Act, would create stronger permitting requirements for facilities seeking permission to emit pollutants in environmental justice areas, and require the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to evaluate existing pollution in an area when issuing a new permit. 

“No community should be forced to bear a disproportionate burden of pollution. We must empower those communities and give them a meaningful say in what’s being built next door,” said the bill’s sponsor, Senator Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis. The bill received a hearing Tuesday in the Senate Environment, Climate and Legacy Committee.

Today, the Pollution Control Agency considers all permit applications on an individual basis, and allows emissions within prescribed levels for regulated facilities. The idea of a cumulative impact law such as proposed by Champion is to force regulators to take current pollution levels into account when evaluating new permits or the expansion of existing ones. 

Environmental justice advocates have fought for cumulative impact laws for years. States like New York and New Jersey passed similar legislation recently. 

“We have overburdened communities and we want to stop the pollution before it even happens,” said Sophia Benrud with the Minnesota Environmental Justice Table. 

Governor Tim Walz has proposed his own version of cumulative impact legislation, and Champion said there are “meaningful differences” with his version. Pollution Control Agency government relations director Tom Johnson said the Walz administration wants to narrow the focus to areas immediately around environmental justice neighborhoods and raise barriers that would trigger a cumulative impact analysis. 

Champion said he believes the differences can be resolved. He is optimistic that the bill can be included in environmental omnibus legislation and pass this year. 

Protecting environmental justice areas 

Champion’s bill would define what environmental justice neighborhoods are and establish new protections for them. The goal is to add more transparency and accountability to the permitting process and give communities more power, Champion said. 

Under the bill, environmental justice areas are Census tracts where any of the following are true: At least 40 percent of the population are people of color; 35 percent of households are low-income; 40 percent of the population has limited English language skills; or it is tribal land. 

The law would require the Pollution Control Agency to deny a new permit application, existing permit expansion, or the renewal of a major pollution source permit in an environmental justice area if the agency determines the permit would contribute to community members’ health problems, including asthma, cardiovascular disease, and elevated blood lead levels.

It would allow local organizations and the applicant to create a “community benefit agreement” if the neighborhood wanted to allow the facility for economic reasons.

The law also would create new public engagement requirements for the Pollution Control Agency in environmental justice areas. Conducting a cumulative impact analysis would be mandatory for permit applicants if the facility is applying for a major source permit as defined by the Clean Air Act, which includes emissions such as nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, and lead. A community petition also could trigger the requirement for an analysis. In either case, more public hearings would be required, and regulators would need to take into account comments made at public hearings when deciding whether to grant a permit. 

“This is what real, meaningful environmental review looks like, and it’s the first step towards addressing a legacy of environmental injustice,” Champion said.  

Air pollution higher in diverse, low income areas

Air quality in Minnesota is improving, according to the Pollution Control Agency’s “The Air We Breathe” report, which was released this week. Regulations on vehicles, power plants, and other emitting facilities, along with a transition away from coal, have led to a steady rise in air quality since 2010. But wildfires in Canada and the American West contributed to a spike in poor air quality in 2021, according to the report. 

Minnesota meets all current federal air quality standards, but “air pollution levels remain elevated in many areas of concern for environmental justice compared to state averages,” the report states. Transportation, emissions from permitted facilities, and wood burning for heat are the leading sources of air pollution statewide. 

Minnesota uses a tool called MNRISKs to evaluate whether air pollution could hurt people’s health. Under that system, 1.0 is a baseline score for an area where most people won’t experience health issues.  Non-environmental justice areas average a score of 0.8. However, low-income areas average a 1.2 score, areas with more than 50 percent people of color average 1.4, and areas with high diversity and low incomes average a 1.8 score. 

More than 2 million Minnesotans live in areas where air pollution risk is over the 1.0 desirable health score, the report states.

Crafting the law

Activists in Minnesota are optimistic the bill can pass through the DFL-controlled Legislature this session. But they are also pushing to make the law’s language as strong as possible, according to Sasha Lewis-Norelle, an environmental health and justice organizer with Clean Water Action. 

“There has to be some level of mandatory permit denial,” Lewis-Norelle said.  

Johnson, the government affairs specialist with the Pollution Control Agency, testified that the agency supports a cumulative impact law. But there are still details to work out, he said. 

The agency wants to see changes in the definitions of public health stressors—sources of pollution like highways or industrial facilities and conditions like asthma and cancer— that would trigger the law, Johnson said. The agency is also concerned about the amount of land the law applies to, he said. Current language in Champion’s bill would apply to facilities within 10 miles of an environmental justice area, which would include the majority of areas where the state permits facilities. That would drastically increase the scope of the law, Johnson said. 

A lobbyist from the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce said the organization wants to see the scale of the bill trimmed down so it covers a list of more specific polluting facilities and geographic areas rather than all defined environmental justice neighborhoods. A lobbyist for the American Chemistry Council also spoke in opposition, arguing that the science around cumulative impacts on people is still being developed. 

Champion has introduced the legislation twice before. He grew up in north Minneapolis, and represents the area today. He’s always seen deteriorating health conditions among his neighbors, he said. The initial version of the bill focused exclusively on the northside, but Champion said he quickly learned that these issues exist in areas across Minnesota. Places already considered environmental justice areas by the Pollution Control Agency include neighborhoods on the south side of St. Cloud and the north side of Rochester. 

The bill is carried in the House of Representatives by Representative Fue Lee, DFL-Minneapolis. The bill was advanced Tuesday to the senate State and Local Government and Veterans Committee. 

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...