Roxxanne O'Brien speaks outside of Northern Metals recycling on May 18 at a rally organized by Community Members for Environmental Justice. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Roxxanne O’Brien knocked on the door of the brick building that houses Northern Metals recycling on an industrial, pot-hole filled street adjacent to the Mississippi River in north Minneapolis. 

She and the dozens who had assembled at the scrapyard wanted answers. They wanted to know why the scrap metal stacked in Northern Metals’ yard kept catching fire, most recently on April 21. They wanted to speak to company managers, and serve them with a massive mock temporary restraining order. 

The rally, organized by the Minneapolis group Community Members for Environmental Justice, was an opportunity for people tired of high levels of pollution to put pressure on the metal scrapper and elected officials. In the thick, dusty air, people took turns at a microphone condemning Northern Metals. The steady beeping of industrial trucks and the crunch of metal being piled in the scrapyard occasionally drowned out their voices. 

A man answered the door and identified himself as a security director for Northern Metals, which is owned by the English firm EMR. He politely explained that no one else could speak with the group. 

Environmental racism is a pervasive problem that harms communities, O’Brien said. “Northern Metals is just one place, just one of the sloppy places that’s getting caught, but we have a feeling that we have a lot of facilities out here that are under the radar,” she said.

Northern Metals ceased shredding operations in Minneapolis after reaching a settlement with the state over air pollution violations in 2019.  It is located in the heart of the Northside Green Zone, an area created by the city in 2017 to recognize that poor air quality has led to negative health outcomes for a community where the majority of residents are people of color living in low-income households. 

O’Brien and others involved in the city green zones, including the city’s program administrator, are frustrated by lack of enforcement power behind the program. Long-term polluters like Northern Metals are grandfathered in, able to take advantage of old permits to continue operating. And when new developments like the Upper Harbor Terminal in north Minneapolis or the Roof Depot on the south side come along, Green Zone participants say their concerns fall on deaf ears. 

“We’ve had Green Zones now for four years and we don’t have protections, they’re literally just feel-good lines on the map,” Kelly Muellman, who runs the Green Zone program for the city of Minneapolis, told Sahan Journal. 

Creating the green zones

The Green Zone program originated in the Minneapolis Climate Action Plan of 2013. Implementation began in 2015, when the city hired Muellman, who previously conducted health impact assessments for the Minnesota Department of Health.

Determining where those green zones should be wasn’t hard. A work group including residents and city staff examined areas of Minneapolis with the highest rates of poverty, the highest concentration of health issues like asthma and heart diseases, areas with the most air pollution, and the areas with concentrated populations of people of color. 

Two sectors of the city stuck out: The industrial stretch along the Mississippi River in north and a small portion of northeast Minneapolis, and the Phillips and Cedar-Riverside neighborhoods on the southside. 

Green zones were officially adopted by the city council in 2017 with the goals of encouraging self determination and accountability; improving the quality of the air and soil; boosting healthy food access; stimulating a green economy while preventing displacement of residents; and easing energy cost burdens in housing.

Organizing against Northern Metals drew O’Brien to green zone work.  The Northside resident plugged into the local activist scene around 10 years ago. Northern Metals began its shredding operations in 2009, which garnered attention and resistance from locals. 

That work led her to organizing around the Minneapolis Climate Action Plan in 2013, where she pushed for green zones based on models from California. Today she remains active on the Northside Green Zone council and is a leader with Community Members for Environmental Justice. 

“For me environmental justice is a really good issue to get people to understand what’s going on holistically,” she said. 

A lack of power 

Like most city advisory committees, the green zone councils’ recommendations lack power. That is becoming a sore spot for members who devote hours of their personal time to try to improve their communities. 

“I’ve never considered the benefits of being in the green zones,” said Maryan Abdinur, an organizer with Hope Community, a south Minneapolis nonprofit, and a longtime advisor to the Southside Green Zone. 

The group has documented and analyzed the issues, Maryan said, but received none of the protections needed to really help the areas. And she doesn’t feel like the city is trying hard to help the communities. 

Permits for industrial polluters like Northern Metals or the Smith Foundry in East Phillips are grandfathered in, and there’s no zoning overlays to ensure any new development in the green zones meet higher environmental standards or meet identified needs, like providing affordable housing or access to healthy food. 

Most green zone benefits are small bonuses tacked on to various city climate programs. Residents of green zones can get multiple cheap trees through a city program and free audits from the Center for Energy and Environment to help improve energy efficiency (the audit normally costs $100). Businesses in green zones can receive extra matching dollars from the city’s Green Cost Share program, which offers to reimburse 20 percent of up to $40,000 in energy efficiency or pollution reduction upgrades. 

“There are these little things sprinkled throughout the city where you can get small benefits, but it’s not transformative,” Muellman said.  

In 2019, the city awarded $40,000 to the Northside and $65,000 to the Southside green zones in one-time funding for various community projects. That funding paid for start-up funds for a northside nonprofit called The Family of Trees, which aims to restore the area’s urban forest, and climate change awareness events, among other small initiatives.

“The green zone policy is an intention, not an action,” Ward 5 City Council Member Jeremiah Ellison told Sahan Journal. 

Ellison joined O’Brien and Community Members for Environmental Justice at their Northern Metals protest in May. The event drew a host of politicians and candidates eager to pledge their commitment to the environmental justice movement and call for the closure of Northern Metals and other sources of pollution. 

The City Council needs to figure out what ordinance changes are necessary to actively improve conditions for residents in highly polluted areas, he said. 

The Northern Metals shredding stoppage scored a major victory for environmental justice activists. Metal shredding is a machine process that cuts iron, steel, copper, and other metals to reduce items into tiny pieces to be recycled. The process is a known source of toxic air pollution. But the company’s operations continue to be an issue, with its scrap metal piles catching fire twice since 2020,

A scrap metal pile at Northern Metals in north Minneapolis. Such piles have caught on fire twice at Northern Metals since 2020, most recently on April 21. Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Those fires show more action is needed to prevent excess pollution in north Minneapolis, activists say. 

Northern Metals parent company EMR did not respond to a request for comment by press time. 

‘We’re going to win…but it’s exhausting’

Residents active in city green zones want to see direct results in their neighborhoods. 

Both green zone councils approved work action plans in December 2019 to map out steps they want to see taken in the next five years. Proposed actions include requiring higher environmental standards and community benefits for developments inside of green zones, and enacting a local cumulative impact ordinance that would study environmental effects of any new developments. 

The Minneapolis City Council  has yet to enact any recommendations from the work action plans, but Muellman said the green zone councils hope to bring items forward for approval in the next year.  

The green zones feel like a lot of talk and no action, O’Brien said. She’d like to see more city council members attending green zone meetings and listening directly to constituents. City planning staff should also attend, she believes. 

Like the settlement to end Northern Metals’ shredding operations, O’Brien said organizers have found ways to pressure companies and governments to do better. 

“We’re going to win some more wins, but it’s exhausting,” she said.  

Community Members for Environmental Justice is also seeking real victories against Northern Metals and other polluters. The group wants a municipal environmental justice ordinance requiring cumulative health assessments on new developments in polluted areas, and a community investment trust plan for clean up and public benefit. Most of all, activists want Minneapolis to find a way to shut Northern Metals down due to fire and health risks, and to study using eminent domain to purchase the site.  

In the Southside Green Zone, hopes for a victory are rising. The Minneapolis City Council voted in late April to pause work on the Hiawatha Public Works expansion project on the Roof Depot site in East Phillips. The resolution calls on city staff to examine selling some of the property to community groups. 

There is growing optimism that could result in success for the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute’s urban farm project, which seeks to bring affordable housing, business space and indoor agriculture to the area. The Southside Green Zone council has written letters in support of the project. 

The pause doesn’t mean the green zone council will get its wish, but it does give more opportunities for environmental justice advocates to keep applying pressure. 

Andrew Hazzard is a 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 returned...