“They were not good neighbors,” said Adam Spees from his home in the Sheridan neighborhood of northeast Minneapolis.
Spees was referring to Northern Metals, the recycling company that was forced to shut down its north Minneapolis metal shredder after years of emitting elevated levels of particulates, lead and other pollutants. As part of a 2017 court settlement, the company agreed to move the shredding operation and pay a $1 million penalty to the state and $600,000 to the city of Minneapolis. It also agreed to fund three years of air monitoring in the area.
Originally, the city’s settlement dollars were planned to be spent on providing free blood tests, lead hazard education and asthma education in the four neighborhoods closest to Northern Metals’ north Minneapolis site: McKinley, Bottineau, Sheridan and Hawthorne, where the riverfront shredder was located.
But last month, following the recommendation of a city advisory group set up in the wake of the court agreement, the Minneapolis City Council approved expanding the settlement area. In addition to the four original areas, more than 30 neighborhoods in north and northeast Minneapolis will be able to get free lead testing and will be targeted for asthma education, a move specifically designed to address the disparate impact of lead poisoning on people of color. According to city documents, 80 percent of children with elevated lead levels in their blood in north and northeast Minneapolis are people of color.
City staff and its partners doing the outreach work, like the nonprofit Sustainable Resource Center, are excited to reach more people, said Rachelle Menanteau-Peleska, SRC’s director of health and outreach.
Driving around in its Leadie Eddie van — a mobile lead testing site adorned with the group’s mascot — the nonprofit makes block-by-block trips into the settlement areas, to both inform people that lead tests are available for children as part of the Northern Metals settlement and to schedule the finger-prick blood lead tests.
If a child is found to have a high elevation of lead in their blood, SRC can make a sweep for high-risk areas in their home where young children might be exposed to lead. The paint in and around windows in homes built before 1978 is a particularly common source of lead, as is paint covering highly trafficked stairs. Once lead is in the bloodstream and enters the brain of a child, it can result in permanent brain damage, certain developmental defects, behavioral changes and other issues.
Yet the idea of city staff and city-sanctioned officials arriving with blood tests and offers to enter the home is unsettling to some who live in north and northeast Minneapolis. “There’s the issue of nervousness of residents who are renters letting the city check the home for lead or children for asthma for fear of being kicked out by a landlord for bringing in the city,” said McKinley neighborhood resident Melissa Newman, who served on the Northern Metals Advisory Committee. “We have a lot of slumlords.”
To combat that fear, the city offers a $50 gift card for parents who have their children tested for lead, another suggestion from the advisory committee. Part of the thinking, said Newman, is that fresh, healthy food helps keep children’s bodies clear of lead, and fresh, healthy food is not cheap. But the gesture, she said, also extends an olive branch and incentivizes residents to give the city the benefit of the doubt.
Now that the city has approved the larger settlement area, the SRC and the city’s health department are putting together a plan to expand their outreach, which will include door-knocking and setting up stations at public places like parks. Menanteau-Peleska said she hopes SRC can begin those efforts throughout north and northeast Minneapolis this spring.