Community members explore air quality and health

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EJCC Fellows from Minneapolis and St. Paul and partners at "What's in the Air We Breathe" event, March 7, 2024
EJCC Fellows from Minneapolis and St. Paul and partners at “What’s in the Air We Breathe” event, March 7, 2024 

Cecilia Calvo, Director of Advocacy and Inclusion, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Earlier this month, I was grateful to be part of a community event, “What’s In the Air We Breathe?” hosted by the Environmental Justice Coordinating Council (EJCC) and co-sponsored by MEP. Community members and leaders, government representatives and environmental health experts came together in North Minneapolis at the Urban League Twin Cities to learn about air pollution, how it affects the health of Minnesotans in the Twin Cities, particularly of low-income and communities of color who are exposed to greater levels of pollution, and what we can do about it. This environmental health community event is part of a four-part Environmental Justice Series, The Planet We Live On, being hosted by EJCC.

I am honored to be one of the EJCC Fellows working together to understand and address the environmental justice overburden in our communities and to eradicate environmental and economic injustices in black and brown communities.

Air pollution harms our health

Although Minnesota meets federal air quality standards and overall air quality in Minnesota has been slowly improving since 2008, a study of the Twin Cities metro and Greater Minnesota cities by the Minnesota Department of Health and Pollution Control Agency determined that the effects of air pollution fall unevenly on Minnesotans. 

Children, the elderly, lower-income and high-uninsured residents, and areas near high-traffic roads and heavily polluting industries experience disproportionate health effects from air pollution. According to this study, based the most current outdoor air quality data from 2015, air pollution played a role in 10% of all deaths (about 1,600 people) in the Twin Cities metro, 8% of all deaths in Duluth, 10% of all deaths in Rochester, and 8% of all deaths in St. Cloud.

Working Together to Protect the Health of Our Communities

During a panel conversation at this EJCC community event with community advocates and government representatives we discussed grassroots and policy efforts underway to address air pollution in the Twin Cities metro area. 

From left to right: Sasha Lewis-Norelle (Clean Water Action/FCPC), Cecilia Calvo (MEP/FCPC/EJCC Fellow), Jose Luis Villaseñor (MPCA), Krystle D’Alencar (MN Environmental Justice Table/Zero Burn and Zero Waste Coalition, Hassan Bouchareb (MPCA)

Krystle D’Alencar, a community organizer with the MN Environmental Justice Table, shared the negative health impacts of the Hennepin County Energy Resource Center and efforts of the Zero Burn Coalition to shut down the HERC. The HERC is a large 3-stack trash incinerator owned by Hennepin County and located near Minneapolis’ Target Field between Downtown and North Minneapolis. Despite significant opposition, the HERC was built in an overburdened community with the highest asthma hospitalization rate in the state and a history of segregation. 

The HERC has burned 1,000 tons of trash almost every day since it was built in 1989 and is one of the biggest producers of air toxin emissions in the county, including nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, PM 2.5 and PM 10, lead, carbon monoxide and dioxins from burning plastics. The population within a 3-mile radius of the HERC has a higher concentration of low-income households than 89 percent of the state, and a higher percentage of people of color than 90 percent of the state. 

The MN Environmental Justice Table, the Zero Burn Coalition, and the Zero Waste Coalition are working to shut down the HERC, to ensure strong participation of frontline communities to determine alternatives to the HERC, to implement a comprehensive zero waste plan in Hennepin County to eliminate trash incineration and minimize landfilling, and to address the root causes of the waste crisis.

EJCC Fellows Delora Lothenbach and Kartumu King helping to welcome community participants at the Urban League Twin Cities in North Minneapolis.

As Sasha Lewis-Norelle shared, the Cumulative Impacts Law that passed during the 2023 Legislative session is an important first step in addressing the disproportionate pollution in environmental justice areas. Sasha is a community organizer with Clean Water Action and a member of the Frontline Communities Protection Coalition that brings together environmental and environmental justice leaders who worked together to support this bill becoming law and are calling for a community-centered rulemaking process that will shift regulatory power to Minnesota’s most overburdened communities.

The MPCA through its rulemaking process is responsible for implementing this Cumulative Impacts Law that is intended to address the cumulative impacts of air pollution for some new and existing facilities in or within one mile of environmental justice areas in the Twin Cities seven-county metro area and in Rochester and Duluth. Hassan Bouchareb of the MPCA asked community members for their help developing the process and criteria to implement the new Cumulative Impacts Law. Between now and April 2026, the MPCA needs to hear from you!

Let’s continue this work together to protect our environment and the health of our communities. Everyone has the right to clean air and water and a healthy environment for our families and loved ones.

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