The Minnesota Legislature passed a law this year that will eventually make some businesses undergo an analysis of the cumulative impact of pollution before they receive permits in what are defined as environmental justice areas.
While that may seem like bureaucratic regulatory talk, the idea for that kind of pollution analysis was a topic of fierce debate at the Capitol earlier this year.
Supporters heralded the legislation as groundbreaking progress to address health problems from pollution that disproportionately hurt people of color. The Minnesota Department of Health says 91% of communities of color have risks associated with air pollution above state guidelines. A 2022 report by Gov. Tim Walz’s administration found areas with more BIPOC residents had far more asthma-related emergency room visits tied to air pollution than whiter neighborhoods.
DFL lawmakers had residents of north Minneapolis testify about the oft-maligned Northern Metals recycler that was tagged with state sanctions for polluting air — and altering records — but has since moved to Becker.
But the bill had its skeptics, who successfully lobbied to narrow the regulations this year out of concern that the original proposal was too broad, unclear in directive, and would limit economic development in Greater Minnesota.
The final product applies to air permits for projects inside, or within a mile of, environmental justice areas in the seven-county Twin Cities metro area, Rochester and Duluth. But the definition of an environmental justice area is expansive enough to cover the vast majority of those regions.
New maps released by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency this week illustrate the breadth of the new law. Everywhere in Minneapolis and St. Paul count, for instance, not just a few neighborhoods.
What the new law will mean, exactly, for businesses in the area, is unclear. Many details of the regulations are still being ironed out through a MPCA rulemaking process. The agency will be taking public comments between July 24 and Oct. 6 on aspects of the pollution rules, like what specific benchmarks should guide a commissioner’s decision on whether a cumulative impact analysis is necessary.
The commissioner will have some leeway on whether to order a cumulative impact analysis. That means it’s possible not every business applying for an air permit in an environmental justice area — or within a one-mile buffer — will need to undergo that scrutiny.
But the MPCA must consider a cumulative impact analysis if one is performed when deciding whether to issue or deny a permit. The agency would scrutinize whether the project would, in combination with existing environmental stressors and other factors, have a “substantial adverse impact” on the environment or health of nearby residents. (The MPCA also has to define what qualifies as such an adverse impact in its rulemaking.)
Some supporters of the law wanted it to apply to environmental justice areas in the whole state. But it was narrowed after pushback from some legislators, business interests, local government officials and trade unions, especially in Greater Minnesota. The initial version of what eventually became law also applied to more permits than what finally passed the Legislature.
An environmental justice area was defined as a census tract where at least 40% of the population is nonwhite, 35% of households have an income at or below 200% of the federal poverty level which would be $60,000 for a family of four, or 40% of the population over age five has limited English proficiencies.
The law can also apply to reservations, though state officials must consult with tribal governments on how exactly to apply the law.
Cumulative impacts are defined in law as the effect of “aggregated levels of past and current air, water, and land pollution in a defined geographic area to which current residents are exposed.”
Here’s a look at what parts of the state count under the law.
Twin Cities metro area
All of Minneapolis and St. Paul are considered either environmental justice areas under the law, or are within a one-mile buffer that is still covered by the regulations. A huge swath of the seven-county metro also counts, including inner-ring suburbs like Columbia Heights, Richfield and South St. Paul, as well as either part or all of some outer suburbs like Anoka, Blaine, Andover, Forest Lake, Burnsville, Chaska, Watertown and Lakeville. Stillwater and Hastings are on the list, too.
Not every part of Rochester is covered by the cumulative impacts law, but most of it is, including the downtown city core. Some outlying areas don’t qualify.
Most of Duluth falls within an environmental justice area or the one-mile buffer rule. That includes the waterfront and other areas home to industry like paper milling and shipping facilities for commodities like taconite, grain and coal at the Port of Duluth-Superior. A chunk of the northern end of Duluth is not covered by the regulations.