This story is part of “All Those ‘Racial Reckoning’ Promises” Word In Black’s series exploring the pledges made to the Black community following the Summer of George Floyd and what organizations and leaders can still do now to promote racial equity and justice.

In Minneapolis, the most densely populated city in Minnesota and the sixth most polluted, the issues of racial injustice and environmental degradation are inextricably intertwined.

In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd — and amid the growing outcry for justice and action — officials assured the Black community they’d address environmental concerns. 

Activists say promises were made to include Black voices in climate plans, and concrete steps to clean up the air and water in Black communities seemed more likely actually happen. But three years after Floyd was killed, many of these environmental concerns remain unaddressed. 

Angela Harrelson, who is George Floyd’s aunt, has seen first-hand how hard to expect promises from police to be kept in a broken system. Harrelson, like many Black people in the city, has a weary skepticism.

“What people need to realize is that for 400 years, the system was broken. People made promises from a system that was already broken. When my nephew was killed the chains were broken,” Harrelson tells Word in Black. 

And the environmental protections for Black people in Minneapolis are broken too. Change, of course, takes time. But with Black residents disproportionately suffering from asthma and developing rashes from contaminated water, time isn’t a luxury these communities can afford.

The Climate Action Plan

One sore spot is that city officials released a climate action plan in 2013 that has barely been updated, and activists say it’s all talk.

The plan includes goals to accomplish by 2025, like reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 30%. 

Black activists have long been upset that they were not consulted for the 2013 plan, and still aren’t being consulted now. Many of them believe creating a climate action plan was a performative move. 

“It’s all fluff,” Sophia Benrud, the co-founder of Minnesota Environmental Justice Table, tells Word In Black. 

“You say equity, but what does equity mean to you? What are you actually planning to change?” 

Benrud, who goes by they/she pronouns, got involved in the fight for environmental justice in Minneapolis before the death of George Floyd. 

Like many climate justice activists in the city, Benrud is frustrated by the lack of action on the part of city officials. The environmental advocate says the city still claims to be “working on it” but has not shown any definitive progress. 

“They’re saying they’re taking public engagement on it, and they’re not actually adding in the public engagement,” Benrud says. 

“We have a garbage burner that takes 43 other cities’ trash,” says Roxanne O’Brien, a community organizer and environmental activist from the north side of Minneapolis. 

They’re saying they’re taking public engagement on it, and they’re not actually adding in the public engagement.

Sophia benrud, minnesota environmental justice table

Air Pollution Hurts Minneapolis’ Black Community 

“Tackling climate change requires bold thinking and collaboration,” Minnesota Governor Tim Walz said after signing a climate-related executive order in 2019. 

“Climate change threatens the very things that make Minnesota a great place to live — from our wonderful lakes to farmable land and clean air.”

Activists may wonder if Walz’s remarks apply to the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center.

Located on the north edge of downtown Minneapolis, the center is one of seven incinerators in the state of Minnesota, and it has a disproportionately negative impact on air quality and Black health. 

Built in 1989, the incinerator burns trash to create steam, which is used to heat the Target Field baseball stadium and some parts of the area. 

Its existence is a chilling reminder of the systemic racism that relegates Black folks to the least desirable corners of American cities. That the incinerator’s location close to a Black neighborhood is no accident, thanks to Minneapolis’ history of redlining. 

In 1910, city officials created racial covenants, documents that banned property owners from selling or renting to people from specific racial groups. Black folks were forced into segregated areas, where they lived closer to refineries, power plants, and garbage incinerators. 

In 2022, an analysis by The American Chemical Society published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology Letters found that redlining is “associated with worse present-day local environmental quality and health outcomes, including air pollution, green space, tree canopy, COVID risk, and urban heat.” 

Rates of lung choking fine particulate matter were highest in these areas.

“Our communities always have to fight for just a regular life,” O’Brien says, noting that a family friend is in a coma due to asthma. 

The center processes 365,000 tons of trash every year. And 45% of all garbage in Hennepin County — the county seat is Minneapolis — is sent to the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center. 

The Minnesota Environmental Justice Table created the Incinerators Working Group to permanently shut down The Hennepin Energy Recovery Center.

Despite promises to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and focus on equitable solutions to climate change, Minneapolis refuses to shut down the incinerators. 

In early May, in a statement to the Sahan Journal, Irene Fernando, chair of the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners, responded to the pressure to shut down the center. 

“Given the recent passage of the Clean Energy Bill and the growing momentum to address environmental justice concerns, Hennepin must carefully consider how to responsibly and proactively respond,” she said.

“These conversations are already underway, and I expect to be able to share more concrete commitments within a year.”

But air pollution is just one of several environmental issues affecting the Black community in Minneapolis. 

Our communities always have to fight for just a regular life.

Roxanne o’brien

Something’s in the Water 

Contaminated water is also a growing concern for Black folks in the north Minneapolis area. From schools to parks, there is dirty water all over the town. In November 2022, 400,000 gallons of contaminated water leaked from the Xcel Energy nuclear power plant in Monticello, Minnesota, about 40 miles northwest of Minneapolis. 

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission posted a public notice about the contaminated water in November 2022 but did not inform the public until early March 2023. 

Xcel Energy downplayed the environmental and health effects of the leak. “We have taken comprehensive measures to address this situation on-site at the plant,” Chris Clark, president of Xcel Energy-Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, said in a statement

“While this leak does not pose a risk to the public or the environment, we take this very seriously and are working to safely address the situation.”

Black residents don’t agree. 

“They are actively testing children for lead poisoning. There are clinics. There are pop-ups,” Benrud says. 

“I have people who contact me all the time concerned about the water,” O’Brien says. “Some say it hurts, burns, or dries out skin. Some say they won’t drink the water.”

In addition, in 2019, research from the Minnesota Health Department revealed that 100,000 lead service lines are still in Minnesota, which may be spreading lead in the water without residents even knowing. 

Every two years, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is required to create a list of bodies of water that do not meet water quality standards. In 2022, the Impaired Waters List included an additional 305 bodies of water and 417 impairments. 

The question now lingers: Will city officials and power brokers acknowledge these environmental inequities and enact meaningful change, or will Minneapolis continue down a path of unsustainable and inequitable practices? As it stands, the status quo does not bode well for the Black residents who bear the brunt of these environmental hazards.

“Environmental hazards are a slow toxic death,” Bedrund says. “Environmental issues are the scariest because the urgency is not there.” 

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