State seeks input from hardest hit by pollution

Protesters rally against carbon emissions at the Minnesota State Capitol in 2007.
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Group looking for new members

New environmental issues like extreme weather or air and water pollution are more rampant than ever. 

All around the world, the United States included, countries, states and neighborhoods are investing more in maintaining a stable environment. And low-income communities of color are getting left out.  

A 2018 Yale University study found poor neighborhoods are less likely to receive funds for environmental services, or city amenities like green space, and struggle more with environmental concerns like air and water quality. 

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, in 2016, set up an Environmental Justice Advisory Group so that communities of color can have a say in how to spend state money set aside for the environment. 

“It’s an opportunity to invite people to the table,” said MPCA environmental outreach coordinator Jose Villasenor.

That access came in handy the same year the group was established. In 2016, the federal government and Volkswagen came to a massive settlement. The German car company was caught cheating on emission tests and hiding the excess pollution it was allowing into the atmosphere. Minnesota’s share of the settlement is $47 million.

The advisory group offered practical ways to swing more of that money to the poorer parts of the metro. One idea was to give extra points to grant applications from areas with certain concentrations of families that meet the criteria for free-and-reduced lunch.

The currently diverse group, made up of Native American, Latinx and Black members, among other races and creeds, is looking to add new members. 

Villasenor said the group can always be more diverse and is also looking for more geographic diversity, namely people from outside the metro areas, like in Southern Minnesota and Tribal people on reservations.

The due date is Aug. 12. 

Group members have the ear of MPCA Commissioner Laura Bishop, lending perspective in decisions for settlement funds and other sources of money, like grants. Members also provide input in MPCA cultural competence staff training. 

The group has a meeting every other month with Bishop and her entire staff. Meetings are in and out of the metro area, like Duluth and Bemedji, said Villasenor.

“Hold the agency accountable,” he said. 

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