The goal is to help those most affected by the ‘notorious polluter’
A Tik Tok video that was released this week featuring environmental justice activist Roxxanne O’Brien helps summarize what had become a 10-year battle between herself and other Northside Minneapolis residents against Northern Metals Recycling Facility.
“Northern Metals became well known as notorious polluters with lots of lawyers and lots of corruption,” said Obrien in her video. “After years of violations a settlement was negotiated to get them to stop shredding metal in our community by August of 2019. For the first time in history, the community got a part of the settlement dollars…”
When Northern Metals were first caught out of compliance with their permits in 2010, emitting pollution levels far beyond what was legal, O’Brien helped form community groups and pushed back against their egregious violations.
When a $2.5 million settlement was reached in 2017, the communities most affected by the pollution were awarded $600,000 as part of an agreement between the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and Northern Metals Recycling.
“This is the first time in history that the community actually got money out of a settlement that was involved in the litigation between the State and that facility,” O’Brien said. “Then I found out how the money was going to be allocated to the City and I realized that the fight kind of wasn’t over, and that I had to continue to push to get people to be accountable for these resources that were coming.
“That’s when me and several other activists and organizers went down to the city [council] and said, look, we need a community board that would discuss and advise on how the money should be allocated, and that’s when they created the Northern Metals Advisory Committee,” O’Brien explained.
The committee of Northside residents along with the health department was tasked with advising the city council on how the settlement money should be spent. The $600,000 would be paid out in $200,000 increments over the course of three years. Many proposals by different groups and organizations were submitted, and in January of 2019 the council approved specific uses for that money.
The $600,000 had to be spent in the four neighborhoods most affected by Northern Metals pollution, which were designated as Hawthorne, McKinley, Sheridan and Bottineau. The four categories the money can be used for include free blood and lead testing, lead poisoning prevention, asthma education for parents and group training, and in-home asthma consultation.
Participants also receive a $50 gift card and products such as Hepa air cleaners, allergen mattress and pillow covers, or free pest removal based on their needs.
With access to these funds over the course of 2019, groups like the City of Minneapolis Health Department, the Sustainable Resources Center (SRC), and the Neighborhood Hub have formed something like a collaborative to see that these services are offered to people in the affected neighborhoods.
The SRC is a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing healthy homes in Minnesota. It was awarded $79,530 from the settlement to do education and in-home visits, as well as the testing events, with the funds dispersed by the health department.
Rachelle Peleska, SRC director of education and outreach, said that in 2019 the Northern Metals funds reached 170 children with gift cards and 34 in-home visits. Over 400 people got lead and asthma education through health fairs aimed specifically at the four Northside neighborhoods.
SRC does this in part with help from their “Leadie Eddie” van, a mobile lead-testing laboratory that travels from neighborhood to neighborhood. “Once they do all of their canvassing for the event,” said Peleska, “we come in with our ‘Leadie Eddie’ van and our staff to do the lead testing. Specifically, children under six years old and pregnant women, that’s our target population in the four neighborhoods.”
The SRC had already been working with the Minneapolis Health Department, which sometimes funded their van for events and outreach. Lisa Smestad, Health Department manager of lead and hazard control and healthy homes, said that when they noticed some events had large numbers of participants and others had very few, they realized canvassing the neighborhoods drastically increased participation.
“That was such a valuable uptake in the number of kids that we decided it was worth hiring a specialist, like the Neighborhood Hub,” Smestad said. “Their workers are local and they’re so passionate about the work, and they go out and talk to the people in their neighborhood to get them to take their children out to get lead tested and about the importance of getting tested for lead and how devastating lead poisoning is to children.”
The Neighborhood Hub began as a “One-Stop Family Support Center” serving 50 North Minneapolis individuals and families who have people with disabilities, with special attention to People of Color and those living in poverty. “By having a consistent presence of culturally competent staff, the ‘One Stop,’ now the Hub, carved out a niche of serving North Minneapolis families in a culturally responsive way,” according to their website.
“The City of Minneapolis wants people who look like the neighborhood going to the neighborhoods to talk to people, because a lot of people are afraid to have the City come in and do stuff,” said Kimberley Washington, Neighborhood Hub executive director.
“So, the Northern Metal Decree, basically what we do is go to these different events with the ‘Leadie Eddie’ van and get their kids tested,” said Washington. “Because a lot of times, People of Color don’t have a primary caregiver. They use the emergency room, so they don’t get tested for lead.”
She added that brain damage caused by lead poisoning affects children’s impulse control, which then makes it hard for them to focus in school. “They’re usually pretty good kids, but they can’t focus, they can’t study, they can’t get a good education. Then that can lead to incarceration,” she said.
Part of the Northern Metals settlement is allotted for inspecting the homes of children diagnosed with asthma. They look for asthma triggers, lead paint, and other toxins that could contribute to those health conditions.
“We’re looking for people in those neighborhoods to call us, and we can arrange for them to get lead tested; we can arrange to inspect their homes for lead as well as any asthma triggers and get them asthma stuff,” Washington said.
She added that the Northern Metals money is used for the education and the testing, not for the lead abatement, which is funded by state and federal dollars.
COVID-19 has reduced the number of lead education and testing events held this year and in this lull Roxanne O’Brien thinks the money could be used in even more innovative ways. “I’m trying to also get people more involved in the work. On the Northern Metals Committee I say, listen, this money is supposed to reach people.”
She has proposed that community members receive $100 gift cards for referrals for lead testing or lead education. She believes that having neighbors become “connectors” within the neighborhoods would increase the reach of the settlement money to those most affected.
“It’s educating people on the issues, and it’s also paying people for their time and their referral and their social capital,” she said.