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Shut it down! Community rallies outside Smith Foundry over pollution violations

By Laci Gagliano

Minneapolis protest against environmental racism. | Fight Back! News/staff

Minneapolis, MN – On Friday, November 10, community members gathered outside Smith Foundry in the Minneapolis East Phillips neighborhood to demand accountability following the EPA’s discovery of many violations of the Clean Air Act and other pollution control standards.

Smith Foundry has been the leading source of lead poisoning in Hennepin County for years, and a major source of air particle pollution. These pollution sources contribute to elevated levels of asthma, heart disease, and other devastating health outcomes for residents of East Phillips and surrounding areas, many of whom spoke out about it during the rally.

Local dancers Kalpulli KetzalCoatlicue opened with a prayer and dance before speakers took to the mic.

Climate Justice Committee member CJ McCormick, who emceed, pointed out that MPCA claimed ignorance of the violations after allowing Smith Foundry to self-report.

Crow Belcourt, a member of the American Indian Movement (AIM) and lifelong East Phillips resident, sang the AIM National Anthem. He said his elders taught him to always think about the welfare of the next seven generations. “I’m here to represent the community. I’m here to represent these mothers holding these babies. We’re here for the future generations,” he said.

CJC member Kawakata El-Ti had a sharp message for the century-old Smith Foundry: cease and desist! “It’s 2023, and in over 100 years you still can’t figure out how to keep the air clean?” he said.

A community member whose family immigrated from Mexico, said that immigrant families trying to build a better life are usually confronted with two options: housing that’s either too expensive, or in an area that’s too polluted, like in East Phillips.

Black, brown and indigenous communities form the backbone of East Phillips. Environmental racism and historic red lining practices are what have enabled the foundry to operate in a residential area, despite the obvious dangers it poses to people who live in the neighborhood.

“If it isn’t bad enough being here in the arsenic triangle, now we have to worry about lead,” said Tanya Perez of Circulo de Los Amigos daycare.

DSA member Michael Wilson said the silence is deafening from those who try to use things like philanthropic funding as a bandage for the deeper health crisis. “It reinforces how Black and brown bodies are not a priority,” he said, adding that it would be different if this were happening in a neighborhood like Lake Harriet.

Evan Mullholland of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy highlighted a particularly alarming discovery from the EPA inspection: the furnace chimney stacks above where the foundry burns metal have zero pollution controls or seals, meaning the fumes are sent straight into the air. “I’m not against the foundry or the workers – I’m against pollution!” Mullholland said.

Roxanne O’Brien, of Community Members for Environmental Justice, was a key person in the successful fight to shut down Northern Metals. “The Smith Foundry fight is like Northern Metals all over again,” she observed. She suggested each person request meetings with each level of their elected representation, as well as show up at MPCA meetings. She also mentioned an upcoming challenge to the law that allowed Smith Foundry to be grandfathered in.

The EPA inspection revealed that not only was the foundry in violation of numerous pollution standards, but that the MPCA was not doing its job in regulating the foundry as a local agency. As several speakers pointed out, foundry workers are also put in the crossfire of dangerous working conditions.

Peter Molinar, a former Smith Foundry worker and shop steward, has long-term health issues as a result of his time working at the foundry, and cited a long list of colleagues who died prematurely over the years due to the job.

In his speech, Joe Vital of East Phillips Neighborhood Institute (EPNI) was adamant about the need to include people employed by Smith Foundry in the discussions. “We have to talk about the workers who are directly impacted on the inside,” he said, calling for a just transition for everyone.

Karen Clark of EPNI, also spoke. A longtime East Phillips resident, she once served in the Minnesota legislature, where she helped pass cumulative impact laws. She said between city, state and federal laws, we can hold the neglectful regulatory agencies accountable.

Joan Vanhala, who lives just three blocks away and has lived in southside for 40 years, said it’s time to declare this a public health emergency. “Let’s make sure we center our people’s health in this,” she said.

State Representatives Aisha Gomez, Mohamud Noor and Hodan Hassan all showed up and delivered promises to hold MPCA accountable by bringing them into the community to directly face everyone’s questions, concerns and demands. Gomez said the failure of the regulatory system is made even more painful by knowing the history of the neighborhood consistently telling these agencies what’s wrong.

Joe Vital echoed other speakers, emphasizing that neither the EPA nor the MPCA have prevented pollution in East Phillips, only the people can. Closing the rally on a passionate note, Vital posed a question to the crowd, “Who keeps us safe?” The gathered people responded with, “We keep us safe!”

#MinneapolisMN #EnvironmentalJustice #EnvironmentalRacism #CJC #EPNI #