The roof depot site in Minneapolis' Southside Green Zone, an environmental justice community where diverse residents face high levels of pollution. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

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The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is encouraging people of diverse backgrounds statewide to apply for its environmental justice advisory group.  

The agency, which regulates and monitors pollution, created the environmental justice advisory group in 2016. Since then, it has influenced the way the state engages residents, and helped shape the Pollution Control Agency’s environmental justice framework, published last year.

Applications are due February 13

“The voice of the community needs to be part of the group,” said Helen Waquiu, director of public engagement and tribal liaison for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Minnesota defines environmental justice as the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.

In Minnesota, 6 percent of residents live near major sources of air pollution. But that figure rises for diverse areas, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. For communities where more than half of residents are people of color or Indigenous, 14 percent are near air pollution sources, as are 9 percent of low-income communities. 

 “Too many Minnesotans experience disproportionate exposure to pollution and related health problems simply because of where they live, and this is unacceptable,” Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Commissioner Katrina Kessler said in a news release. “All Minnesotans should have access to clean air, clean water and healthy lands, but unfortunately agency data show this is not the case.  We still have a long way to go, and I am eager to prioritize this work with our environmental justice advisory group.”

“Too many Minnesotans experience disproportionate exposure to pollution and related health problems simply because of where they live, and this is unacceptable.”

Katrina Kessler, commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

The group is prioritizing demographic and geographic diversity when considering applicants, Waquiu said. The environmental justice movement is fairly strong in the Twin Cities, she said, but hasn’t garnered the same level of attention in outstate Minnesota.

“It’s really important that we do have representation throughout the state,” Waquiu said. 

Helen Waquiu, the Director of Public Engagement and Tribal Liaison for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Submitted image.

The advisory group meets  once a month at rotating locations across the state and meetings typically last three hours, Waquiu said. Kessler and others in the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency leadership attend the meetings. Members may choose to form subcommittees on individual topics such as air pollution permitting. 

The advisory group has traditionally taken great interest in learning about the function of the agency and how practices can be changed to prioritize communities that feel disproportionate pollution impacts, Waquiu said. Members counsel the agency on how to integrate environmental justice into its permitting and compliance work, highlight projects that will address historical disparities, and employ best practices for developing relationships in environmental justice communities. 

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency will host information sessions about the advisory group and its work online on January 17 and 23, and in Duluth on January 25. 

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...