Environmental activists say communities of color must have input
Environmental justice advocates say that all communities of color should have input in Minnesota’s new clean energy plan that must be submitted next year to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Despite last month’s U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned the 2011 EPA air pollution rule that placed limits on mercury, arsenic and acid fumes emitted by coal-fired power plants — saying that it didn’t take into account the costs imposed on the plants — the remaining milestones of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan still are in place. All states must submit compliance plans to EPA by next summer, and a full implementation of the federal Clean Power Plan by summer 2020.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) met June 30 with local environmental justice advocates and other local stakeholders at EMERGE Career and Technology Center in North Minneapolis to discuss strategies to improve stakeholder engagement and how to access equity in the State plan.
Communities of color and environmental justice advocates must do more than just “check a box,” noted local Sierra Club spokesperson Karen Monahan, who spoke to the MSR before the two-hour scheduled meeting. “The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is putting the plan together. We’re not just engaging but taking input and putting it in the plan [so] that our communities can actually benefit from it. Communities of color are disapportionally impacted by health disparities, job disparities and environmental disparities.”
Monahan, Twin Cities neurologist Dr. Bruce Snyder, Minnesota Science Center intern Shiranthi Goonathilaka, and Louis Alemayehu of Environmental Justice Advocates of Minnesota also spoke to local reporters before the meeting. It’s important that both the EPA and the MPCA implement a plan that protects all people, said Snyder.
“The pollution from these [industry and coal-burning] plants” over the decades — especially the mercury emitted from coal burning — affect children with asthma, people with heart issues and seniors, said Snyder, who also teaches at the University of Minnesota Medical School. “I do think the medical community is very concerned about pollution. We’ve seen studies that say 10 percent of children born and raised in the Great Lakes [states] have developed [health concerns]. That means lower IQs that reduce potential. It’s a big problem.”
“We are living in a time of dramatic change and transformation,” noted Alemayehu, who blames the industrial revolution, the subsequent migration of people from rural areas to large urban cities, and the slow neglect of the environment over time. “Whatever we do to the water, we do to ourselves. Whatever we do to the air, we do to ourselves.”
Goonathilaka, a Spellman College student and a Science Museum of Minnesota intern, added that addressing pollution “can’t be an abstract idea.”
“We can’t make the same choices because they are going to affect our children and our great grandchildren to be able to sustain the earth,” added Science Museum intern 20-year-old Cynthia Harris of Detroit. She says her generation should help “to reverse the process” of what started decades before.
Alemayehu, who also is involved in a solar garden (several solar panels) currently being installed on the roof of Shiloh Temple Church on West Broadway, also talked about the seriousness of climate change. “We lost the relationship we had with the land… We lost our connection with nature” as a result. That connection contributed to health issues as well, he believes.
Climate change is real, said Snyder: “This is important for all of us. The summers are longer and hotter. The humidity builds and makes it hard for people to work.”
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, a “1,000-year flood” has a 0.1 percent of occurring in any given year — they don’t use the term as much because people mistakenly saw this as only occurring every 1,000 years.
“We’ve had three 1,000-year floods in 10 years,” including the June 2012 Duluth floods, noted Snyder. “The greenhouse climate change issue is the signature [issue] of the 21st Century. We need to help our political leaders…to take this seriously and understand the ramifications. There are a lot of people that don’t, and we need to make it clear to them.”
Minnesota therefore must protect all citizens from coal burning and other harmful air pollution, such as smog, soot and other toxic air pollutants, continued Monahan on the significance of the MPCA meeting on the city’s North Side. “We need to make sure that we are in the community and engaging the community” in the State’s Clean Power Plan, she said.
Monahan, however, expressed concern about political pushback. For example, the MPCA doesn’t have full autonomy: “The state legislature…wants to review the plan and wants their comments [included]. This is…government overreaching.”
Goonathilaka said any pollution plan discussion must include community folk and “not just the people who [do] this [as] their job. When you bring this issue to the community, we want to hear what they think we should be doing and might bring a new perspective. I think it’s great that the MPCA is making strides to make these sessions more inclusive, and have the people at the table with those who make the rules.”
“If we develop a power plan that is inclusive, it will benefit us all,” said Monahan.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.