Future of Cumulative Impacts law will reshape environmental justice

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

As we wrote in March, Minnesota is – overall – a healthy place to live. The state has clean water, (usually) clean air, award-winning health systems, and well-functioning infrastructure.

Unfortunately, those great resources are not evenly distributed. For Black, Brown, and Indigenous Minnesotans, they’re often out of reach, resulting in some of the nation’s worst racial disparities in health and economic well-being. These disparities haven’t happened by accident: many decades of redlining, underinvestment, and other forms of economic and social injustice have taken their tole. 

Today, communities of color and low-income areas – which the state refers to as environmental justice communities – face concentrated pollution from industries, highways, and waste disposal.  Examples can be found in Minneapolis’ Northside and East Phillips communities, where residents suffer higher rates of asthma than in other areas of the state. State agencies have tended to approve polluting projects in those communities with little input from those impacted, treating them as “sacrifice zones” for the rest of the state.

Rresidents have fought for years to win protections against pollution, and this year, they won a breakthrough with the much-celebrated Climate and Environment Omnibus Bill. The Omnibus included a new “cumulative impacts” analysis to state permitting for polluting projects.

MEP worked for this bill as part of the Frontline Communities Protection Coalition, which has sought for four years to win the strongest possible language in the law to address longstanding pollution in environmental justice communities. Testifiers in favor of the bill included both environmental advocates and folks on the frontline of pollution in those affected areas.

The law that ultimately passed didn’t go as far as we’d hoped, nor did it cover as broad a geographical area as it should. But the law is still a major victory and a stepping stone to move forward, with opportunities ahead to help shape the state’s policy for the better.

A significant step

The cumulative impacts law, authored by North Minneapolis legislators Representative Fue Lee and Senator Bobby Joe Champion, focuses on recognizing the reality that any one source of pollution doesn’t exist in a vaccuum. Smokestacks, incinerators and other sources inflict harm on communities that accumulates over time – hence the term “cumulative impacts.”

The new law requires the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) to account for these cumulative impacts on human health when it considers a new project with potential for pollution within a mile of an environmental justice community. It also applies to existing facilities reapplying for a permit or seeking an expansion.

The law mandates greater opportunities and outreach for community participation, helping to better include the voices of those impacted. If the MPCA determines that such a project would cause further harm to the community, it can impose additional terms to its permit or prevent the project entirely.

MEP and our allies advocated for the law to apply across the state, but after receiving pushback from certain industry and municipal groups, the Legislature reduced the scope of the law to cover only the state’s three largest urban areas: the Twin Cities, Duluth, and Rochester. Tribal communities, however, will be allowed to opt in to the new policy.

Looking ahead

The passage of the cumulative impacts law was the end of one chapter of advocacy and the beginning of another. The MPCA will now be carrying out rulemaking to determine the specifics of the law: how it will apply and how community input will be included.

MEP and the Frontline Communities Protection Coalition will call on the MPCA to provide as strong a voice as possible to community members. While MPCA scientific professionals do important work, their past decisions have damaged trust between the agency and the communities it serves. In order to restore that trust and protect communities, the process for including those impacted must be open, formalized, and carry weight in the regulatory process.

Looking ahead further, we’ll be advocating in the next Legislative Session for the cumulative impacts law to apply beyond the three urban areas identified in the bill. While some of Minnesota’s most polluted neighborhoods are in those areas, environmental justice communities across the state should benefit from the protections of this law.

While we haven’t yet achieved everything we sought on cumulative impacts this year, we’re encouraged by the law’s passage and the growing understanding that Minnesota has the chance to fix our environmental disparities. Thanks to the tireless efforts of EJ leaders and allies, we can look forward to a day when frontline community residents can breathe much easier.

For previous columns, visit mepartnership.org/category/blog/. If you would like to reblog or republish this column, you may do so for free – simply contact the author at matthew@mepartnership.org.

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