Signs and protest art hangs on the fence bordering the former Roof Deport property. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

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The November elections overshadowed the City of Minneapolis’ controversial decision to relocate the city’s water distribution yard to land located in the East Phillips neighborhood. Despite opposition from East Phillips residents and a battery of neighborhood groups, the city plowed ahead with its plan to consolidate public works infrastructure in the former Roof Depot site. By doing so, the city missed a chance to animate its promises to remedy environmental injustice with meaningful action. But the opportunity has not been completely lost.

The November elections also ushered in new City Council members who can vote for a cleaner future for the East Phillips community. East Phillips is home to the largest urban American Indian population in Minnesota and has approximately twice the percentage of people of color as  Minneapolis overall. Not coincidentally, it is one of the areas in the metro where toxic industrial development historically has been concentrated. For years, the neighborhood has been known as the “Arsenic Triangle,” due to widespread arsenic contamination left behind by a former insecticide manufacturer. Other heavy industries, including an asphalt plant and a foundry, have also contributed to pollution in the area. 

This legacy is why East Phillips falls in the City’s Southside Green Zone and why the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency considers it an “Area of Environmental Justice Concern.” These designations by the city and state recognize the longstanding environmental burden faced by this community. 

Residents in and around East Phillips experience two to four times the rates of asthma-related health emergencies compared to the rest of the Twin Cities metro. A likely cause?  Elevated levels of airborne particulate matter from nearby industry and automobile traffic. Our East Phillips neighbors also suffer from elevated cancer risks connected to the pollution. 

The city knows this: You can find it described succinctly in the impact study for relocating the water facility to the Roof Depot site. The report’s Racial Equity Impact Analysis admits, “The data indicates that the residents living in the neighborhoods around the project site, which has a majority of BIPOC residents, experience much higher levels of cumulative pollution than residents from majority white city neighborhoods.” 

Still, even when its own analysis revealed these sobering facts, the city voted to push forward with a project that will bring more pollution into East Phillips. 

One of the city’s justifications for relocating the water distribution yard to East Phillips was the lack of other viable sites, a questionable refrain that never seemed rooted in reality. An internal study, recently made public, shows that this claim was false. This city document—revealed to the majority of City Council members only after they’d voted on the development plan—presented advantages to maintaining the water facility in its current location. It also identified problems with relocating to East Phillips. 

But the old council did not consider this option, and remained tunnel-visioned in its push to move the water facility to East Phillips. 

Thankfully, there is still time for Minneapolis to do right by East Phillips. The new City Council members can change the trajectory for the project, or, at the very least, demand that the council  publicly discuss the possibility of  expanding the water distribution yard on its existing site. Now that we know other viable sites have not been fully considered by the council, why not reconsider? Progress and development are welcome, just not at the expense of communities struggling to breathe. 

Nobody deserves to live in a neighborhood clouded with toxic air. We must demand our elected officials honor commitments to heal our communities poisoned by such pollution. Green Zones and environmental justice designations mean nothing unless we take steps to advance environmental justice there. 

It’s time for the City of Minneapolis to quit talking about environmental injustice and do something about it.

Jay Eidsness

Jay Eidsness is a staff attorney for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (mncenter.org), a St. Paul and Duluth-based nonprofit. MCEA uses science and the law to defend Minnesota's environment...