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

For generations, the Mississippi River in north Minneapolis has been treated as an industrial wasteland, housing some of the dirtiest businesses that harmed families living nearby. The Northern Metal Recycling shredder facility is one example.

The metal shredder started up in 2009, and people living in north and northeast Minneapolis paid the price. For 12 years, people close to Northern Metal breathed in pollution, including lead dust in the air, that poisoned people and our children. This, in addition to other pollution sources, has resulted in some of the highest health disparities in the state for that area.

When Northern Metal refused to shut down its shredder in 2019 as they promised, it took organizing, legal action, and a whistleblower coming forward with proof that the operation was providing fake readings on their pollution control equipment to put an end to this nightmare.

The decade-long fight against Northern Metal ended with north Minneapolis community members, mothers, and youth winning and Northern Metal finally moving out.

The pollution is gone, but the work isn’t done

With news that the Minneapolis Park Board is considering a proposal to acquire and redevelop the Northern Metal site, it’s time to think ahead to the decades to come. We need to celebrate this win, learn from what happened, and make sure the community gets a leading voice in determining the future of this site.

I’ve been involved in this fight with many others since the beginning, and it’s part of the reason I helped found Community Members for Environmental Justice (CMEJ). CMEJ is a vehicle for our community to stand up against pollution on the Northside and in solidarity with other neighborhoods, raising awareness in our community, advocating to our elected officials, and when needed, stepping up in court.

Community members protest outside the Northern Metal Recycling facility in May 2021. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Since 2013, community members have been showing up and calling on our elected officials to do something about Northern Metal’s fires, lies, and pollution. In 2016, we learned that airborne lead and other toxic compounds released from their facility along the Mississippi River were being breathed in by our kids.

We know, thanks to a whistleblower in 2019, that Northern Metal tried to hide its harms by manipulating pollution data. We know we can’t trust Northern Metal to operate safely when fires broke out at their facilities in Minneapolis and Becker, Minnesota. Throughout that period, and since the shredder ended operations, community members have feared more fires. It is a tremendous relief to me and my neighbors that we may soon be rid of this environmental hazard to our neighborhood.

Holding Northern Metal accountable has been hard and exhausting work. It should not have been this strenuous. It should not have been left up to an already overburdened community to do this work. We’ve been fighting for nearly a decade for Northern Metal and those in government to protect people and ensure our children can breathe.

Seeking an end to this corporate polluter is a relief, but that does not mean that the work is done. What takes the place of Northern Metal matters greatly. This is the moment to engage people, not to push full speed ahead with developer-driven proposals that put profits first.

The fact is, if and when Northern Metal leaves, the public is going to foot the bill for the clean up after we already paid the cost with our health.

So if Northern Metal is out, what happens next? The site has operated as an industrial site for generations. The fact is, if and when Northern Metal leaves, the public is going to foot the bill for the clean up after we already paid the cost with our health. With all that burden we carried comes the responsibility of our public officials to engage and be accountable to the community.

Obviously, Northsiders are not starting from a place of trust in our government and in profit-driven developers—all the more reason it needs to be done right. And this site has the potential to become a space that reclaims the natural abundance and community’s connection to the river led by the vision of those who live here.

We need to take this moment to consider how we got here, or we risk repeating the same historic mistakes and processes that mirror colonialism and continue environmental racism.It’s not enough to just remove the harm, the community deserves reconciliation and reparation.

The creative energy and commitment to our community is what makes this next phase in the history of that parcel of land along the river exciting and so important. We celebrate the idea of a future without Northern Metal and many other polluters, and once again demand that our voices be valued and our bodies respected in where we go from here.

Roxxanne O’Brien is a community organizer who lives in north Minneapolis, and asks the city and state to face environmental injustice and racism in her community. She is a mother of three who has been...