Minneapolis neighborhood says “Urban Farm Not Toxic Harm”

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Former Roof Depot building in the Phillips neighborhood of South Minneapolis

City: Wants to relocate the city’s water yard to East Phillips, which would add at least 220 additional vehicles every day to the neighborhood—an area already incredibly burdened by traffic pollution. Additionally, the city would have to demolish the existing Roof Depot building, which sits on an arsenic plume. The demolition risks exposing residents to even more dangerous toxins.

East Phillips Residents (powerful video here): Want to transform the existing building into an urban farm and much more:

The vision is to convert the massive warehouse into a community-owned site for indoor hydroponic and aquaponic gardening–a growing method that feeds plants using the waste produced by farmed fish. In East Phillips, the plan would allow Indigenous residents to farm walleye, and use the waste to feed vegetation. 

The plans grew to include spaces for a farmers market, local small business, a cafe, a bike shop, and affordable housing units. A large array of solar panels would go on the roof, providing clean energy to the building and neighborhood residents.

Current Status

This Friday, October 8, Minneapolis adopted Councilmember Reich’s “compromise” Staff Directive to grant East Phillips Neighborhood Institute (EPNI) 3 undeveloped acres of the Roof Depot site and move ahead with the part of the Hiawatha Expansion Project that sets up the Water Facility on the site. As of 10/8, the proposal is at Mayor Frey’s desk, who East Phillips organizers are urging to veto

The increased pollution from the water yard would still occur in Reich’s proposal, and the city has still not undertaken a thorough Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The 3 acres given to EPNI includes none of the building. This, from the Dispersal Disorder’s piece:

EPNI president Steve Sandberd (sic) said it was “insulting” to call the proposal a compromise, as there had been no community consultation. The key difference, he said, between Reich’s proposal and EPNI’s was that the three acres set aside for community use in Reich’s proposal did not include any of the existing buildings on the plot — meaning EPNI would have to build from scratch.

“The bare land thing is really a non-starter for us because it’s so much more expensive to try and do our project. Our whole project is based on how much cheaper it is to use an existing building,” he said.

The vote passed 7–6, along the lines that have become typical for this issue but are definitely not intuitive. Cano, Gordon, Johnson, Jenkins, Palmisano, and Schroeder voted against the proposal, while Bender, Cunningham, Ellison, Fletcher, Goodman, Osman, and Reich voted for it.  

Ellison released this statement on his vote. My personal read of his statement: EPNI would have some legal liability for the arsenic if they were granted the site, which would be an undue burden for the city to give over. And he seemed to imply that the supporting CMs didn’t do enough work to address that. However, EPNI wouldn’t demolish the building, so they could leave the arsenic plume alone. They also had a plan to clean up arsenic with federal support on the rest of the site.

But the plan he supported assumes that the city will demolish the building safely, which given the fact the city hasn’t even done an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), is playing with fire. Additionally, the city’s plan doesn’t involve cleaning up all the arsenic, only a foot for drainage standards. 

What Lies Ahead:

Shortest Term: Call and email Mayor Frey to veto the Reich Staff Directive. Email: [email protected]; Phone: 6126732100

Short-ish Term: If Frey accepts the Staff Directive, it’s possible that city staff will try to demolish the Roof Depot building ASAP, so that a new city council can’t change course next year. Direct action may be needed to save the building this fall.

Medium: EPNI’s lawsuit against the city remains active. Also, if the building lasts to 2022, everything could change with a new city council. 

Longer term: Organizers are continuing to find new official support and funding for the urban farm project. The more funding they can secure ahead of time increases likelihood of city granting EPNI rights to the site and the success of the project.

Context:

The city’s historical and current treatment of the East Phillips neighborhood and its residents is textbook environmental racism: predominantly low-income, Black, Indigenous, and people of color, the East Phillips neighborhood experiences disproportionate industrial and traffic pollution, and the Roof Depot site is on the “arsenic triangle,” an area where an insecticide company made and dumped arsenic for more than 25 years in the mid-1900s. The EPA declared it a superfund site in 2007. Even so, residents experience disproportionate rates of asthma, heart conditions, and other pollution- and toxin-related health issues. One East Phillips activist, Cassandra Holmes, became an organizer after her son died at age 16 from a “heart condition he wasn’t born with”—read more on Dispersal Disorder.

The environmental racism is so egregious that the Minnesota state legislature (led by Karen Clark) passed a law in 2008 that requires officials to evaluate “cumulative levels and effects of past and current pollution” before issuing any new permits in East Phillips.

In fact, EPNI sued the city in 2020 alleging that Minneapolis broke this law because they failed to meet the higher bar. In response to the lawsuit, the city completed an Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW), but it concluded that a more thorough EIS was not necessary. The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA) produced a thorough criticism of the city’s EAW here. An EIS is absolutely necessary and would show that the city’s proposed project is simply unacceptable.

Editor Note – the president of EPNI is Steve Sandberg. Dispersal Disorder’s piece misspelled his last name.

by Connor S., coordinator of Hi-Lake Regional WG of TCDSA