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Air-quality permits could get additional scrutiny in underserved communities

The Pollution Control Agency and companies looking to emit pollutants in or around underserved communities could be required to take additional steps before issuing or receiving air-quality permits.

HF168, sponsored by Rep. Fue Lee (DFL-Mpls), would require the PCA to consider cumulative pollution levels in an "environmental justice area" before issuing a permit.

The bill, as amended, would also require permittees to conduct, and the PCA to consider, 15-point demographic studies intended to indicate the ability of communities to withstand pollution increases.

An environmental justice area would be defined as Native American reservations or one or more census blocks with the following characteristics:

  • 40% or more of the population is non-white;
  • 40% or more of the population over age 5 have limited English proficiency; or
  • 35% or more of the households have an income at or below 200% of the federal poverty level.

The bill was laid over Tuesday for possible omnibus bill inclusion by the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy Committee. Its companion, SF186, is sponsored by Sen. Bobby Joe Champion (DFL-Mpls) and awaits action by the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Legacy Finance Committee.

Air pollution disproportionately affects people of color and people with low incomes, said Lee, whose north Minneapolis district has been found to have high air pollution levels.

While just 32% of all communities in Minnesota face air-pollution-related risks, 46% of low-income communities face such risks, according to the PCA. Among communities of color, the proportion facing such risks rises to 91%.

Environmental-justice advocates said the bill could help address racial disparities by providing more information to regulators. But Tony Kwilas, director of environmental policy for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said he's not sure that every potential permittee could collect the information required for the demographic studies.

Such information would include racial and ethnic characteristics of residents, birth rates, age distributions, education levels, incidences of substandard housing and incidences of poor nutrition.

PCA Assistant Commissioner Greta Gauthier said the agency supports the intent and goals of the bill, noting similar provisions in Gov. Tim Walz's budget, but wants time to review the amended language.

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