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Bill proposes considering cumulative impact of environmental stressors in MPCA’s permitting process

Shannon Haiden has asthma. As does her daughter, granddaughter, grandson, daughter-in-law and niece.

Their breathing struggles are part of living in a North Minneapolis neighborhood overburdened with polluters, Haiden said. The highest rates of asthma are in the six ZIP codes closest to downtown Minneapolis.

Polluters such as incinerators, industry and heavy traffic are disproportionally sited in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty and higher proportions of residents of color, adding to stressors that contribute to poor health and lower life expectancy.

That cumulative impact should be recognized before adding to the burden, say supporters of HF637, the “Frontline Communities Protection Act.”

The bill would require the Pollution Control Agency to deny permits if they would add to cumulative adverse environmental stressors in an environmental justice area.

It’s not easy living in community overburden by constant traumas, said Roxxanne O’Brien, founder of Community Members for Environmental Justice. “This is not the end of our work, but it’s a really good start by stopping more of the accumulation of pollution in our community.”

After adopting a delete-all amendment, the bill, sponsored by Rep. Fue Lee (DFL-Mpls), was laid over Tuesday by the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy Committee.

An environmental justice area, as defined in the bill, is a census tract where 40% or more of the population is nonwhite, 40% or more of the population speak limited English, or 35% or more of the households have an income at or below 200% of the poverty level or are on tribal lands.  

Before receiving a permit from the Pollution Control Agency that could affect an environmental justice area, the bill would require an applicant to hold a public meeting with community members, offer an opportunity for robust public engagement and accept oral and written comments which would be forwarded to the Pollution Control Agency.

Permits would be denied if the permit would contribute to environmental stressors in an environmental justice area unless the applicant and an organization representing residents enter into a community benefit agreement.  

Several issues such as defining when a cumulative impact analysis would be required would be part of the agency’s rulemaking process.

Past iterations of the bill were criticized for being too specific, Lee said. However, committee members questioned giving the agency authority that should reside with the Legislature.

“There’s too much going on here to leave it up to an agency,” said Rep. Josh Heintzeman (R-Nisswa).   

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