No one is protecting East Phillips from air pollution, notably those who promised to do so

It’s part of a larger pattern of regulatory failures

(Correction: An earlier version misstated the pollution contribution from individual industries to East Phillips’ overall pollution problems. It has been corrected. This post also was updated with information from the MPCA.)

The City of Minneapolis has declared racism a public health emergency, pledging to “allocate funding, staff, and additional resources to actively engage in racial equity in order to name, reverse, and repair the harm done to BIPOC in this City.”

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) has committed to environmental justice, saying it will focus “on developing strategies to reduce pollution and health disparities in communities most at-risk.”

Unfortunately, neither of those promises are protecting the residents of East Phillips, one of Minneapolis’ poorest and most racially diverse neighborhoods, and home to Little Earth, a 212-unit housing development that gives preference to Native American applicants.

The neighborhood has several pollution sources: Smith Foundry, an iron works; Bituminous Roadways, an asphalt plant; the city’s Hiawatha Public Works yard, and Hiawatha Avenue, a major thoroughfare.

City leaders should know that East Phillips is part of the “pubic health emergency.” The city’s 2021 Racial Equity Impact Analysis said residents living in the area “experience much higher levels of cumulative pollution than residents from majority white city neighborhoods … leading to [higher] levels of asthma and hospitalization for children and adults.”

(East Phillips asthma levels were more than double the state average in 2019, MinnPost reported.)

Unless things change soon, East Phillips will soon get even more pollution and related health problems, further exacerbating health disparities.

East Phillips locator map.

The city of Minneapolis plans to expand its Public Works yard in the neighborhood on what is known as the Roof Depot site. (The East Phillips Neighborhood Institute has an alternative vision for the Roof Depot site, a multi-use redevelopment including an Urban Farm, affordable housing, and solar panels, which has failed to get city support.)

The Public Works expansion would increase the site’s current 350 outdoor surface parking spaces to 888 spaces, including a three-story parking structure, city documents say. Peak morning traffic, currently 165 vehicle trips, would increase to 365 trips. At full occupancy, the new facility would have 1,800 vehicle trips daily. (It’s also a fueling station for other city vehicles.)

It makes no sense to add more air pollution to an already sick neighborhood.

The planned Public Works yard expansion is across the street from the Smith Foundry and kitty corner from Bituminous Roadways.

The city said the Public Works expansion’s environmental impacts were low enough that it didn’t need an air pollution permit from the MPCA. That decision didn’t factor in the presence of nearby pollution sources and how the all add up.

The Smith Foundry does require a state air pollution permit. The MPCA last issued one in 1992, effective for five years. It wasn’t renewed. Apparently (and nonsensically), the foundry still is legally operating under state “permit shield” rule. That says if the company “submits a timely and complete application for reissuance,” the “permit shall be considered not to expire until a new permit is issued.”

Bottom line, its been 31 years since the MPCA issued the foundry an updated permit.

In 1996, the MPCA issued Bituminous Roadways a non-expiring “Air Emission Registration Permit,” used for businesses with “low levels of actual emissions.”

Air pollution and asthma

Smith Foundry, looking east along East 28th Street.

Air pollution exposure plays an important role in the development of asthma, according to the American Lung Association. “Asthma is one of the most common illness-related reasons that children miss school.”

Two key air pollutants can trigger asthma: ozone and particle pollution, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said.

Ozone, the primary pollutant in urban smog, isn’t regulated per se. It’s formed from the interaction of heat, sunlight, nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), according to the 2020 report, Green Zones: Health Impact Assessment of the Phillips neighborhood. VOCs and nitrogen oxide pollution are regulated.

Citing 2015 data, the report said Bituminous Roadways emitted more than 2,700 pounds of fine particulate pollution annually (7 percent of the neighborhood’s top five stationary pollution sources), and 2,500 pounds of VOCs annually (23 percent of the neighborhood’s top five stationary pollution sources). This doesn’t count traffic pollution.

While Bituminous Roadways doesn’t contribute the majority of the pollution, it’s a cumulative impact.

The report said the Smith Foundry emitted more than 18 tons of fine particle pollution annually (90 percent of the neighborhood’s top five stationary pollution sources), and a negligible amount of VOCs.

Healing Minnesota Stories submitted questions to the MPCA Jan. 2, including:

  • Why hasn’t the MPCA updated the Smith Foundry’s air permit since 1992?
  • A 2008 law says the MPCA shall not issue a permit in the East Phillips area “without analyzing and considering the cumulative levels and effects of past and current environmental pollution from all sources on the environment.” It seems that by not reissuing the Smith Foundry air pollution permit, the agency has avoided having to do the cumulative impacts analysis. How does the MPCA respond?
  • How is the MPCA meeting its environmental justice commitment in East Phillips, which has disproportionately high asthma rates?
Roof Depot site.

It’s been more than a week and I haven’t received a response. I’ll update this blog when I receive it.

[Update: I received information today from a separate MPCA Data Practices Act request. It included an Oct. 10, 2018 letter from the MPCA to Minneapolis Public Works staff to let them know that the MPCA “is in the process of an air quality permitting action (Project) for the Smith Foundry and Bituminous Roadways – Minneapolis facilities to update their air quality permits.”

“As part of this Project, an air quality cumulative levels and effects analysis … will be used to better understand potential air quality impacts from the projects.”

It continues: “It is MPCA’s understanding that the new water yard location is of interest to residents and expect that there may be questions about its impact” on the air quality monitoring. However, the Public Works site “it is not being analyzed as an emission source.”

That was more than four years ago. It raises questions about what happened to the air pollution cumulative impacts study.]

The MPCA’s closest air monitor to the foundry, Public Works yard and Bituminous Roadways is on Anderson School, about .8 miles away.

The City of Minneapolis is expanding its network of toxic air sensors, according to a Tuesday article in the StarTribune. The article focuses on monitoring in East Phillips.

Jennifer Lansing, a senior environmental research analyst for the city’s health department, said the sensors would detect aggregate VOC levels, but not in the detail for any kind of enforcement action, the article said.

“‘We would never be able to collect data and say … these particulates came from this facility,’ Lansing said. ‘There’s so many different sources of pollution in the urban area,’ including from cars and trucks.”

And that’s the problem. There are too many different sources of pollution in the area.

Enough is enough.

The MPCA has a history of not updating or adequately enforcing air and water quality permits. Here are two other examples.

Northern Metal Recycling, North Minneapolis

Neighbors and allies protest at Northern Metal, 2021, for continuing to be a nuisance property, as non-metal shredding operations continued.

For a decade, 2009-2019, North Minneapolis’ Hawthorne neighborhood was home to Northern Metal Recycling, a metal shredding operation. It added air pollution to an area already beset by polluting industries.

More than 75 percent of Hawthorne residents are Black, Indigenous or other people of color. The neighborhood’s median household income in 2017 was under $30,000. Its zip code had the highest hospitalization rate for asthma of any in the state, the Star Tribune reported that year.

Northern Metal began operations in June, 2009. Six months later, the MPCA’s initial air testing found pollution above permitted levels.

Northern Metal attorneys said the company couldn’t meet the air quality standards in the existing permit, according to a story in the Twin Cities Daily Planet.

Instead of enforcing the permit, the agency allowed the company to amend it. The MPCA approved the amended permit on Oct. 30, 2012 – nearly three years after the MPCA first identified air quality violations. The MPCA acknowledged that the updated permit allowed higher pollution levels than the original permit, “but the permitted emissions still were within allowable limits,” it said.

In effect, Northern Metal was rewarded for violating its permit. The amended permit allowed it to shred entire auto hulks, something it couldn’t do under its original permit.

By March, 2015, an air quality monitor near Northern Metal recorded high levels of particle pollution for the fourth time in five months, the Star Tribune reported. (Exceeding the standard twice over a one-year period is a permit violation.)

Northern Metal wrote the MPCA to complain it was being unfairly targeted for the neighborhood’s poor air quality, when the neighborhood had multiple pollution sources.

Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges said she was outraged “and called for a strong state response,” the Star Tribune reported. The MPCA stopped short of blaming Northern Metal for the elevated pollution levels, however, “noting there are other potential sources in the area.”

Neighbors engaged in protracted efforts to get the agency to act. Northern Metal moved out in 2019, ten years after it began polluting the neighborhood.

More background here.

MinnTac Mine, Mountain Iron

U.S Steel began operating the Minntac taconite mine near Mountain Iron around 1967, the same year the Minnesota State Legislature created the MPCA. Six years later, in 1973, the state created the Wild Rice Rule, which limited the amount of sulfate pollution in water because of the related damage to wild rice.

Taconite mining processes result in sulfate-rich (and wild-rice-damaging) waste water.

The MPCA issued Minntac’s first water discharge permit in 1987. (It didn’t require the mine to comply with the Wild Rice Rule.)

Over the years, the sulfate levels in the mine’s discharge water kept going up.

The MPCA was supposed renew or deny U.S. Steel’s water discharge permit every five years, starting in 1992. The MPCA ended up extending U.S. Steel’s initial 1987 permit for more than a quarter century, until 2018.

Wild rice is a sacred food for the Anishinaabe, including the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. Fond du Lac and the environmental group Water Legacy went to court to challenge MinnTac’s waste water permit, arguing the permit was too lax.

They also pressured the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to intervene. Last March, they got a major win, when the EPA ordered the MPCA to enforce the Wild Rice rule, which had been incorporated into the federal Clean Water Act.

The MPCA is supposed to be the state’s leading environmental watchdog. Its mission is to protect and improve the environment and human health. It shouldn’t take the courts or the EPA to force it to do its job.

More background here.

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