An Indigenous community activist knocks on Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey's office door on February 23, 2023. Activists attended a Minneapolis City Council meeting earlier that day in hopes of convincing the council to put a stop to the Roof Depot demolition. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

When officials with the city of Minneapolis held a press conference last week to lay out their plan for the demolition of the Roof Depot building, they were adamant they could remove the warehouse without harming the surrounding community.  

But residents of the East Phillips neighborhood remain skeptical that demolition of the vacant warehouse, which sits on a former superfund site that was contaminated by arsenic, would be carried out safely.

A February 24 judicial order temporarily blocked the demolition of the Roof Depot warehouse, which was scheduled to begin this week, to allow the case to be heard by the Minnesota Court of Appeals. 

That ruling means the nonprofit East Phillips Neighborhood Institute can continue its legal fight to preserve the building and rally more support behind its cause. No timetable for the case to be heard on appeal has been set, and it could be months before the city can begin demolition. 

Community members and the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute want to use the building and 7.5-acre parcel of land as an urban farm, community hub, and affordable housing. The city plans to expand its public works facility at the site, located at E. 28th Street and Longfellow Avenue. 

Immediately after the February 24 court hearing where activists’ were granted their injunction, Minneapolis Public Works Director Margaret Anderson Kelliher and an engineering firm hired by the city, Braun Intertec, hosted a meeting detailing their plans to ensure public safety and mitigate contaminated soil during demolition. 

If allowed to move forward, the city’s demolition would take about a month to complete, according to city officials. The building would be broken down in pieces and hauled away in trucks, not imploded in a single blast.  

“There is no need to leave people’s homes during the demolition of the building,” Anderson Kelliher said. 

East Phillips residents who attended meetings in October 2022 hosted by the city reviewing its demolition plans said they remain concerned. 

An Indigenous community activist and security guard exchange words at a Minneapolis City Council meeting on February 23, 2023. Activists attended the meeting in hopes of convincing the council to put a stop to the Roof Depot demolition. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Cassie Holmes, a longtime neighborhood resident who advocates for the urban farm project, was not reassured when she learned about the protocols for air monitoring and risk mitigation. Arsenic and other contaminants in the soil and groundwater are trapped under the building, and many in the neighborhood want it to stay that way. 

“It was scary as hell, that’s for sure,” Holmes said. 

Toxic ground

Braun Intertec was hired by the city to analyze levels of toxic contamination on the site and create a plan for the contractor to safely demolish the building. The firm has experience working in the East Phillips superfund area. The demolition would be completed by Rachel Contracting, a St. Michael-based construction firm that specializes in groundwork and demolition. 

The city’s demolition plan was approved by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, which manages pesticide pollution, and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. 

Braun Intertec’s report breaks down the history of the site, which served as a coal storage yard for railroads in the early 20th century. The warehouse set for demolition is adjacent to a factory that produced and stored arsenic-based pesticides from 1938 to 1963. Sears built the warehouse in 1947. 

According to the report: Crews discovered arsenic lingering in the surrounding soil when Hiawatha Avenue was reconstructed in 1994. The federal government declared the area a superfund site from 2007 to 2017. The Environmental Protection Agency found unsafe arsenic levels in 600 area homes, and by 2011, had removed about 50,000 tons of contaminated soil.

There is a contaminated plume of groundwater beneath the building, and there are multiple areas where samples show concentrations of arsenic in the soil. The biggest risk is direct contact with that soil or contaminated water during the demolition process, the Bruan planning document states. 

The contaminated groundwater would not be affected by demolition because it is 40 feet below the surface, Stephen Jansen, a geologist for Braun, said at last week’s news conference with city officials. 

Minneapolis plans to use the site to expand its existing Hiawatha public works campus by building a new water yard. The project includes a large parking garage, storage area for work trucks, a diesel refueling station, and a job training center. The city purchased the site for $6.8 million in 2016, and believes the centrally located campus will make services more efficient. 

Holmes and the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute, the nonprofit behind the urban farm plan, initially sought an injunction in late 2022 against the city to stop the demolition. On February 13, Hennepin County Judge Edward Wahl ruled in favor of the city and denied the injunction, finding that the institute couldn’t prove demolition would cause irreparable harm. 

The institute then asked the court of appeals to review Wahl’s decision, prompting Wahl to grant the temporary injunction last week so the appeals case can be heard. The move preserves the building for now. 

Mitigation plan

To mitigate risk from arsenic contaminated soil, the contractor will be required to dampen the area to perform what is known as a “wet demolition.” The idea is to prevent arsenic-laden soil from forming clouds of dust. Workers on the site will wear personal protective equipment. 

Jansen said he believes arsenic is a minor issue on the Roof Depot property, adding that there are “rigorous” controls in place to prevent erosion and stormwater runoff. Dust control is a standard part of urban engineering and demolitions, he said. 

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

Braun would monitor air quality around the demolition site at all times, and will have instant figures that allow workers to respond if contaminates reach dangerous levels, he said. 

“The city has gone above and beyond typical engineering procedures to ensure everything is done in a safe and efficient manner,” Jansen said.  

Sarick Matzen, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Minnesota who focuses on urban soil, was part of a group of academics who submitted an affidavit in support of Holmes’ suit against the city. He worked on the cleanup of superfund sites in California while earning his PhD. 

The issue is less a matter of whether there are protocols in place to limit toxic dust pollution during the demolition, but whether those protocols are followed, he said. The important aspect is quality control and enforcement, and neighborhood concerns are valid, he said. 

“We have a legacy of regulators and corporations failing to protect the public health of communities, especially communities of color,” Matzen said. 

Regulators have an opportunity to repair some of those historic harms and build trust with the community by enforcing regulations to the utmost ability to protect public health, Matzen said. 

Demolition work on superfund sites where there is a concern for toxic dust is normally limited to non-windy days, he said. If done right, dust particles shouldn’t leave the site during demolition. While the potential for toxic exposure during demolition is a one-time, temporary risk, Matzen believes the plan isn’t considering the cumulative impact of pollution on the neighborhood. 

If the demolition is allowed to proceed, Matzen is worried about the city’s plans for the site. Exhaust emissions from truck traffic and fuel storage will increase pollution in the neighborhood, he said. 

“Whenever you have tanks, you have leaks,” Matzen said. “We have to think about that on top of the burden to toxic chemicals people in that area are already facing.”  

East Phillips has some of the highest levels of asthma, heart disease, and other pollution-related illnesses in the state, which caused the Minnesota Legislature to pass a law in 2008 protecting it as an environmental justice community. It is adjacent to major highways like Hiawatha Avenue and Interstate 94, and is home to a foundry and asphalt production site. 

No warning

Ellie Schneider, who lives directly across the street from the warehouse, sat in on the  city’s Zoom meetings about the demolition held in October 2022. She said the demolition plan fails to account for the high rates of asthma and other pollution-related illnesses in the neighborhood. She’s also worried that the city hasn’t pushed a public awareness campaign about the demolition to the surrounding households. 

“A lot of my neighbors don’t speak English. It feels wrong to not alert them,” Schneider said. 

Anderson Kelliher said they aren’t planning to ask people in the neighborhood to leave their homes or take precautions during the demolition because the city believes their plan is safe. 

City Council Member Jason Chavez, whose ward includes the site, said he has heard from constituents who are worried about the demolition and potential health impacts. Chavez has tried repeatedly to block the demolition and support the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute proposal since taking office in 2022. His effort at a February 23 city council meeting to retract the city’s contract to demolish the building failed. 

“They’re rightfully stressed out about what’s going on,” Chavez said of nearby residents. 

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...