Cumulative impacts bill advances at the Capitol

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

When you look from the 30,000 feet level, Minnesota is a very healthy place to live. At last count, we have roughly the third-highest life expectancy among the 50 states. Most of us breathe freely and easily – our air quality is in the top ten, and we have one of the nation’s lowest rates of asthma. For most of us, our drinking water is safe, our homes are appropriately distant from pollution, and we can expect to live a reasonably healthy life.

But all of those excellent rankings come with a big asterisk: an obscenely high variation in those outcomes between white Minnesotans and Minnesotans of color, and between the well-off and those in poverty. As with income, homeownership, educational attainment, and many other statistics, Minnesota has some of the worst racial and environmental health gaps in the nation. We’re living in the same state, but with vastly different experiences.

Take asthma: while the state as a whole has a low rate of the disease, Black and Indigenous Minnesotans are more likely to be diagnosed with it than white Minnesotans. For Black Minnesotans, rates of death from asthma were about 1.7 times higher than among whites from 2016-2020. Minnesota children who live in counties with high rates of childhood poverty are about twice as likely to be hospitalized for an asthma attack as those in average or more affluent counties.

Lead exposure is another classic example, one that MEP has written and worked on extensively. Whether from sources like paint, water pipes, or industrial facilities like Water Gremlin or the Federal Ammunition Plant, far too many people are still exposed to lead, and it doesn’t hit equally. Kids in areas of high childhood poverty are more than twice as likely to suffer from elevated blood lead levels than the state average, largely due to the environment they live in.

The numbers are similar for heart disease, cancer, and all manner of other conditions. These disparities constitute a tragedy, but it would be a mistake to characterize them as an accident. Rather, it’s a legacy of environmental racism and decisions that intentionally placed pollution in Black and Brown communities or caused Black and Brown communities to end up in polluted places. In most cases, companies and government agencies went ahead with these decisions without seeking input from those who would be most impacted – the people who lived there – treating their neighborhoods and communities as “sacrifice zones” for pollution.

Take a look at a demographic map of the Twin Cities, for example, and you’ll see that the most heavily-used stretches of interstate highways snake through areas of low-income and populations of color. These areas by and large have a high proportion of asphalt, low levels of tree cover, and various sources of industrial and transportation pollution. 

Redlining and other forms of segregation may now be prohibited by law, but their effects are still impacting Minnesotans today. Minnesota will never be a state where everyone can thrive until we both recognize the harm these decisions have caused and take the critical steps we need to fix them.

Protecting frontline communities

Environmental justice advocates and community leaders see stopping the problem from getting worse as a good place to start. New industrial or other projects shouldn’t be allowed to further threaten people’s health in communities that have already borne the brunt of pollution. That’s the logic behind cumulative impacts legislation, which seeks to take into consideration the impact of pollution that has occurred over time and from multiple sources when environmental agencies decide whether to permit those projects. 

In Minnesota, that bill takes the form of the Frontline Communities Protection Act (FCPA), introduced by North Minneapolis legislators Rep. Fue Lee and Sen. Bobby Joe Champion. The bill would create strong new protections for environmental justice communities – areas of relatively low income, high populations of color, or tribal land.

It would give the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency a mandate to conduct greater public engagement and require health impacts research and analysis of new projects in these communities. The MPCA would have the authority – and indeed, the requirement – to reject a project or place special conditions on its permit if it is deemed to threaten residents’ health. 

MEP and our partners in both our membership and in environmental justice communities support the bill as a first step to righting the wrongs of our past and present – to stop the bleeding of pollution into frontline communities. We’re optimistic that it will pass: on Tuesday, the Senate version of the FCPA was approved by the Environment, Climate, and Legacy Committee and it now goes to the State and Local Government and Veterans Committee. The companion bill will get its first hearing in the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee this coming Tuesday, March 14. 

If it passes, the cumulative impacts bill will mark a historic moment and step forward: Minnesota not only recognizes the harms our systems have caused to frontline communities, but commits to halting and reversing them. The fact that we’ve gotten this far is a testament to the organizers from these communities who have worked tirelessly for their voices to be heard, and for environmentally just decisions to be made. Thanks to their efforts, we can look forward to a Minnesota where everyone – not just the privileged – can live in a healthy, breathable community.

How you can help: Stand in solidarity with our most overburdened communities and show decisionmakers that the FCPA is an essential bill to pass this session. You can show your support in two ways – by contacting your legislators, and/or by attending the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy Committee hearing this Tuesday, March 14 at 3:00 PM in Room 10 at the State Office Building in St. Paul. Supporters will be wearing lavender and purple to show support for this vital legislation. Thank you for taking action to advance environmental justice in Minnesota!

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