For decades, north Minneapolis activists protested air pollution created by the Northern Metal Recycling yard, seen here in May 2021. New laws aimed at identifying pollutants and giving neighborhoods that hosted sites with large penalty payouts like north Minneapolis more say in how that money is spent. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Three bills presented to a legislative committee Wednesday by a north Minneapolis lawmaker seek to create new reporting standards for air toxins and give Minnesota communities affected by high pollution more knowledge and resources. 

The bills authored by Representative Fue Lee, DFL-Minneapolis, would change the way air pollution is documented, institute regular public hearings for industrial polluters with state permits, and ensure a portion of large fines against violating companies is put directly in the hands of neighborhoods harmed by their excessive pollution. 

Lee represents a portion of north Minneapolis that is home to several industrial pollution sources along the Mississippi River. The area is considered an environmental justice community, where many residents are people of color or low-income. Higher levels of asthma and other health conditions associated with pollution are documented in this district, and industrial polluters like Northern Metals Recycling have reached large settlements with the state for violating their permits. 

“We need to know what is going on in our community, especially in the air we breathe,” said Lee, who presented his bills to the House of Representatives Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy Committee.  

New regulations

One proposal would require all facilities operating under a state air quality permit to annually report sources of toxic air emissions to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Current state and federal law requires reporting of polluting organic compounds and particles, but does not require permitted sites to break down the specific chemical sources of toxic air emissions.  

The bill would require the Pollution Control Agency to regulate specific pollutants listed in federal statutes like the Clean Air Act and chemicals identified as risks by the Minnesota Department of Health known as air toxics. The agency would need to establish testing, monitoring, and inspection requirements for facilities with air quality permits. 

Lee said the bill was inspired by a report on the Water Gremlin site in White Bear Lake in which the legislative auditor’s office cited a lack of reporting on air toxics and rules for the metal company as weaknesses that led to excessive trichloroethylene pollution. The company was ordered to pay $4.5 million for releasing too much trichloroethylene, which is used as a cleaner and degreaser in metal manufacturing. The substance is known to cause kidney cancer

Today, permitted entities voluntarily report their air toxics emissions every three years. If they don’t, the Pollution Control Agency has to estimate emissions based on often incomplete information, according to Gregory Pratt, a University of Minnesota public health professor who worked for the Pollution Control Agency for 32 years. 

“Roadways and polluting facilities are located disproportionately in neighborhoods with a high proportion of people of color and low socioeconomic status,” Pratt testified. 

The Pollution Control Agency did not object to the bill, and estimated it would eventually require 10 new full-time employees. By 2027, it would cost about $1.4 million annually, according to a financial analysis. Much of that cost could be recouped with fees, agency government relations director Tom Johnson said. 

More transparency, money for communities

All money recovered from settlements and fines levied against polluters who violate permits is currently directed to the state’s environmental fund. Lee wants to require 40 percent of money from settlements over $250,000 be distributed to a local community health board where the site is located. The health boards would be required to work with residents to figure out how to spend that money to best alleviate damage done by pollution. 

How air quality affects your health. Credit: Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

In 2017, the state reached a settlement with a $2.5 million Northern Metals Recycling in Lee’s district. For the first time in Minnesota, the state agreed to award $600,000 to the impacted communities.  Much of the money went toward blood testing and lead remediation in the area

“The way the system currently works is we end up finding lead in a house by finding it in a kid’s blood first, and that’s wrong,” Minneapolis deputy health commissioner Patrick Hanlon said. 

The city of Minneapolis supports the bill and hopes it will lead to more preventative outcomes in areas hurt by polluters, Hanlon said. 

Roxxanne O’Brien, a leader of Community Members for Environmental Justice, is an activist who has fought pollution in north Minneapolis for years and played a significant role in the campaign to make Northern Metals cease shredding operations in the city. She said neighbors had to fight to be included in discussions of how to spend that money. 

“Although we’re not treated like the experts, we are the experts,” O’Brien said. 

Settlements and fines big enough to be covered under Lee’s bill have been relatively rare. Since 2017, the Pollution Control Agency reached settlements with 113 violating polluters; only six of those were more than $250,000, Johnson said. The average penalty is around $25,000. 

Today, Minnesota has 118 air quality emission permits that have no expiration date. A third bill Lee authored requires organizations operating those facilities to hold public meetings every five years and make the permit review process public. It would also require the Pollution Control Agency to say in writing why it is denying any request to review existing permits. 

O’Brien said the law would give residents information about legacy polluters who have held permits for decades. 

The bills are currently going through committees in the House of Representatives. No votes before the full chamber have been scheduled. 

Lee and other House Democrats are optimistic that they can pass bills targeting environmental justice this session with the DFL party in control of both chambers and the Governor’s mansion. 

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...