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The state says pollution contributes to thousands of deaths each year in Minnesota. The hard part: what to do about it

The study also shows that certain groups of Minnesotans — including people of color, the very young, the very old, and those without adequate access to health care — are disproportionately affected by pollution.

After a lengthy court battle with the state, Northern Metals agreed to pay a multi-million dollar fine and move its operations out of the city.
After a lengthy court battle with the state, Northern Metals agreed to pay a multi-million dollar fine and move its operations out of the city.

Roxxanne O’Brien moved to northeast Minneapolis in 1987.One of the first things I can remember when I got here was smelling poison in the air,” she said recently. 

It was a free association made at the time by a young girl. But later, as an adult with children of her own, living near Northern Metals Recycling in north Minneapolis, O’Brien learned she wasn’t wrong. After the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency began monitoring the metal shredder, it found the facility was contributing to poor air quality, emitting too much particulate matter and high concentrations of metals. 

The fight over Northern Metals drew O’Brien into environmental activism. At first, she says, she “didn’t know any language around the environment.” But she learned about the impact of policies and practices that allow polluters into communities of color; of how low-income people have higher rates of health conditions like asthma that can be attributed to their exposure. “I was angry, and then I was consistent enough to get people’s attention,” said O’Brien, who is now a Green Zone organizer for north and northeast Minneapolis, working with the city and county. 

After a lengthy court battle with the state, Northern Metals agreed to pay a multi-million dollar fine — including funds for community health work in the city — and move its operations out of the city. (The company will shut down the Minneapolis facility this week, after the MPCA denied the company’s request to continue operating at the site for two more months.)

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Northern Metals was a rare win for activists like O’Brien. But beyond the settlement itself, the episode also contributed to changing the way the state thinks and talks about the impacts of pollution across different communities — even if doesn’t quite yet know what it is going to do with that information. 

Studying the issue

At the same time O’Brien and other activists were demanding accountability for north Minneapolis residents, members of the Phillips neighborhood in south Minneapolis were drawing attention to multiple facilities there, raising concerns about their exposure to pollution from projects in the area, said Frank Kohlasch, MPCA air quality program manager. 

As pressure mounted, changes were happening inside the MPCA, too. Former Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration wanted to see the agency pay closer attention to pollution in marginalized communities experiencing health disparities. 

The result was a partnership between MPCA and the Minnesota Department of Health, which would pool data and use it to educate communities and lawmakers and inform their own permit processes. Instead of talking about emissions and community health as separate issues, they would show, in detail, how those issues intersect.

“We really hadn’t approached that question together,” said Jim Kelly, environmental surveillance and assessment manager at MDH. “Addressing underlying health disparities has been a focus of our department since the beginning of the Dayton administration. So, applying that in terms of environmental justice, it kind of goes hand in hand.”

The group, called the Joint Environmental Risks Initiative, released a report this summer looking at air pollution and related illnesses. Using hospital admissions and air quality data from 2013, researchers were able to estimate the health impacts of air pollution in each county in Minnesota. Among other things, the report shows air quality issues aren’t restricted to cities, and neither are related health problems. It found that thousands of deaths — and hundreds of hospital visits — were associated with the impact of air pollution in the state. 

The team didn’t find dramatic differences in air quality around the state, though there were some variations, and they caution that any air pollution is harmful. “Even though air quality in Minnesota is pretty good and we meet federal air quality standards, there’s still a significant health impact of air pollution,” said David Bael, co-author of the study. “That’s a very big deal.”

The results also show that certain groups of Minnesotans are disproportionately affected by pollution. Those groups include nonwhite and low-income people, the very young, the very old, and those without adequate access to health care.

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Kathy Raleigh, an epidemiologist at MDH and co-author with Bael of the recent study, said in light of the role pre-existing disparities play in the effect pollution has on a person’s health, any solutions have to include addressing health inequalities in addition to reducing pollution.

The statewide report was a followup to a study released in 2015 that looked specifically at the Twin Cities. That study found that 2 to 5 percent of metro respiratory and cardiovascular hospital visits — and between 6 to 13 percent of deaths in the Twin Cities — could partly be attributed to air pollution that meets federal standards. And while the report’s authors saw little variation in the average air quality between ZIP codes, communities of color and people in poverty were considered to be more vulnerable to pollution due to higher rates of heart and lung illnesses that are exacerbated by pollutants.

Bael said these studies don’t directly address the issue of marginalized communities being disproportionately exposed to pollution, but “that’s certainly a factor that the PCA is working to address.”

Where to go from here

The findings from the Joint Environmental Risks Initiative’s first inquiry are likely to help inform where resources — like the state asthma program targeting places where asthma rates are highest — should go. Settlement money from the Volkswagen emissions scandal is controlled by MCPA and could be doled out to improve air quality in communities impacted most by poor air quality.

As far as pollution reduction goes, Bael said the state does “a pretty good job” of regulating those polluters that hold permits. What’s harder, he said, are those emissions from sources that don’t require permits, like cars or certain agriculture. 

No drastic changes in policy were spurred by the 2015 report. But the information is useful at the local level, Raleigh said, where MDH works with community and tribal partners to improve health. “This was not meant to be a legislative report,” Raleigh said. But it could capture lawmakers’ attention. “I think we’re moving in that direction of not just individual action but broader action.” 

Yet the MPCA’s Kohlasch said determining what the state should do with the information is difficult. “The reports show us there’s still room for improvement,” he said. “We should listen to communities and what citizens need and find out what are the actions we should take.”

Advocates like O’Brien want to use it to see the agency address the policies that created the underlying disparities highlighted in the reports. “I didn’t design these communities; poor people don’t create ghettos,” O’Brien said. “Rich people and politicians – they create inequities. Our communities, when we do share this information about our concerns, we are told that we don’t really have the correct data. We are told that we are blowing things out of proportion.”

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MPCA has made an effort to work more with low-income people and communities of color. After the first report was published, MPCA formed the Environmental Justice Advisory Group, which includes 12 members, all advocates, whose goal is to shape the agency’s environmental justice “framework” and integrate it with the agency’s work of regulating polluters.

Advisory group member Sarah Goodspeed, who works with Climate Generation, an environmental policy organization, said the group helps train staff, supports diversity in hiring at the agency, and shows state staff how their work impacts communities. “A lot of these changes are really small and take place over a long time period. I do believe that this group is helping push the MPCA to make those changes in a very real way.”

Goodspeed also said the results of the air quality and health impacts report validated what advocates have long been saying. “People who live in [environmental justice] communities are really familiar with what they’re experiencing … but don’t have the physical data to affirm what they already know is happening.”

For her part, O’Brien credits the state for taking steps in recent years to build relationships between advocates and officials, though she also thinks there is more work to be done.

“As more connections are made, it seems the closer we get to more victories. I believe we are getting further,” she said. Even so, “I think we’re moving slow.”