Communities of color bear the brunt of toxic waste

Northside bus tour visits local contamination sites

From soil with lead levels too high to grow healthy gardens, to polluted drinking waters and toxic air, minority communities like North Minneapolis are experiencing a slow form of toxic poisoning— and everyone knows it. 

When industrial planning meets minority communities it’s never an equitable process regarding whose health will suffer. It is this historic green-light zoning practice that allows industrial plants to sit within or near communities of color. 

A coalition of organizations recently came together to bring awareness to environmental justice by highlighting the health risks of living in or near industrial zones, specifically waste processing facilities and sheet metal companies. 

The Community Members for Environmental Justice (CMEJ) and Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate (HPHC) invited the community, organizational leaders, media and political members to tour some sites that were and still are contributing to environmental issues in and around North Minneapolis. 

The two-hour “Toxic Tour,” held on Aug. 20, was co-sponsored by Minnesota Doctors for Health Equity, Minnesota Public Health Association, American Lung Association, Minnesota Association of African American Physicians, and Twin Cities Medical Society. It concluded with brunch at Breaking Bread Cafe on West Broadway Avenue.

The groups are focused on systemic inequities in Minnesota and the brewing public health crisis that will stem from climate change. 

One has to ask why the imposing trash-to-energy incinerator, Hennepin Energy Recovery Center (HERC), was ever built so close to North Minneapolis and downtown. According to Angie Timmons, environmental education coordinator for Hennepin County, the facility processes some 360,000 tons of waste yearly. 

Time-battered old waste plant in near North Minneapolis
Photo by Al Brown

“I have younger staff members who asked that same question,” Timmons said. “The decision was part of a very complicated process in the 1980s. There was a much larger incinerator site in the running farther north, but through negotiations it was moved. 

“But ultimately, it was a committee of county and city leaders who decided on the current site,” Timmons continued. “However, there are new efforts to have a zero-waste site developed, so we are working with a group of community partners to determine how we can get to a place where we don’t need incinerators or landfills. But until we get there, the County is committed to operating HERC in the most safe and efficient manner.”

Timmons, however, wouldn’t connect HERC’s output to issues of lead and other air toxins found in the area. “I wouldn’t say that contaminants of lead or other toxins are attributed to HERC, but more so from previous practices. Our department does quite a bit of work supporting clean-ups of environmental contaminations through our environmental response program,” she said.

But are the pollution levels emitted by HERC still dangerous?  “Of course they are,” said Roxxanne O’Brien, a founding member of CMEJ and a familiar voice in the environmental justice battles in North Minneapolis. “The devil is always in the details. 

“There have been numerous studies detailing the harm to communities of color. So when you are constantly breathing in toxins like nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, lead, and other fine particulate matter, of course it’s dangerous.”

O’Brien continued, “Just look at the rate of cancer, asthma, skin rashes, infant mortality, mental health issues, and early memory loss among many Black adults—issues that our communities are already facing in addition to COVID and chemical contamination. Whether it’s murder by gun or chemical poisoning, it’s still murder.” 

An impactful 2020 New York Magazine article, “Pollution is Killing Black America,” detailed how people of color always bear the burden of burning toxic waste that emits dangerous vapors in the air and finds its way into the water system of the poor in those communities. 

While a nation questions how entire Black communities in a city like Flint, Michigan were allowed to drink and bathe in poison water for nearly two years, Flint revealed what many living in communities of color already knew: There is systemic environmental justice that targets people of color.  

The larger question is how many more Flints are there that we don’t know about? How many residents of poverty-stricken neighborhoods are suffering from cancers, asthma, skin rashes, and forms of degenerative brain functions from breathing toxic particles or coming in direct contact with lead paint? 

Organizations like CMEJ and HPHC are asking those questions and inviting the public to join them. 

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