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Minneapolis neighborhood takes fight with city to Legislature

Residents of the East Phillips neighborhood hope their fight against the city of Minneapolis can be resolved in St. Paul.

The city plans to relocate its water yard to the Roof Depot site, at the intersection of 28th Street and Hiawatha Avenue. The city plans to demolish the building and relocate its water yard from an undersized 100-year-old building in northeast Minneapolis and expand its 8-acre Hiawatha maintenance facility.

Unaware of the city’s plans, area residents negotiated with the building’s owner and planned to convert it into an indoor farm and aquaponics operation, both of which would provide jobs to the diverse neighborhood.

Sponsored by Rep. Hodan Hassan (DFL-Mpls), HF4594 would modify a 2008 law that requires the Pollution Control Agency to analyze the cumulative past pollution on an area before issuing an air permit to a portion of south Minneapolis, including the site in question. Residents would be able to petition for an agency analysis even when an air permit isn’t required.

No action was taken during Thursday’s remote hearing of the House Environment and Natural Resources Policy Committee.

The area was designated a federal Superfund site, and arsenic is now encapsulated under the Roof Depot, where residents worry it will be disturbed if the building is demolished.

Brad Pass has lived in the neighborhood for 53 years and said he’s watched three generations of children suffer from pollution from the so-called Arsenic Triangle. In the 1930s, a chemical plant started storing arsenic on the ground as it made pesticides with arsenic and lead to battle the grasshopper invasion out west, he said.

“We had $9 million allocated for the project without even trying,” Pass said, claiming the city had more money and the threat of eminent domain, or condemnation for a public project. “The city right now is saying they’re not subject to any of the recommendations of the health impact assessment that’s already been created on this land. … We’re willing to compromise but we’ve never been allowed to have our project heard by any city of Minneapolis city council meeting or any planning session at public works.”

City Council President Lisa Bender said the project began over a decade ago and the $7 million purchase of the site and a master plan were approved in 2018 after extensive community engagement and multiple public hearings.

Minneapolis Public Works Director Robin Hutcheson said the city offered to make one acre available for the neighborhood project, then two acres, but neither offer was satisfactory.

“We are disappointed to see this localized bill come forward in this way,” Bender said. She is concerned it would duplicate much of the city’s work, delay the project and increase costs.

PCA Assistant Commissioner Greta Gauthier said while the agency and governor are strongly committed to environmental justice, and the agency is “generally supportive” of the bill, it would cost $595,000 to do the analysis and demolition permitting it mandates. It would also put the PCA “squarely into a local land use issue,” she said.

Rep. Dale Lueck (R-Aitkin) suggested lawmakers shepherd the community to a solution rather than take sides. “I would just be very cautious about ever asking for state to step in and take a hammer approach to solving a local issue,” he said.

Rep. Aisha Gomez (DFL-Mpls) disagreed, saying, “This community has been asked to do this over and over again, over many years.”

Hassan said she lives in East Phillips and sees signs of neglect and environmental racism all over and it’s lawmakers’ responsibility to protect Minnesotans from that.

A companion, SF4609, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Hayden (DFL-Mpls), awaits action by the Senate environment committee.

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