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Holmes asks: Will you make a phone call?

By Tesha M. Christensen

At 14, Trinidad Flores was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy, a condition in which an enlarged heart struggles to pump blood. His mom, Little Earth’s Cassandra Holmes, watched him endure three surgeries and a failed heart transplant before he died in 2013 at age 16.

Now she’s leading a charge to decrease the pollution in South Minneapolis. 

She doesn’t want to see any more neighborhood babies born in need of breathing tubes, or young people who’ve succumbed to asthma and diabetes. 

During a community meeting about the Roof Depot site off Hiawatha and 28th St. on June 17, 2019 at the East Phillips Recreation and Cultural Center, Holmes walked through the crowd holding up maps that show how many kids in the neighborhood have been treated for lead poisoning, how many have visited the emergency room because of asthma attacks, and how many have dealt with arsenic poisoning.

For every 10,000 people, over 200 are hospitalized because of asthma, blood lead and arsenic in this area. 

Of the 7,000 children who live in Phillips, about 40% live in poverty and 80% fall into various ethnic groups. 

Photo by TESHA M. CHRISTENSEN
Abah Mohamad (right) is baffled about why the city isn’t supporting the urban farm plan. “It has everything the community needs,” Mohamed pointed out, speaking on behalf of herself and three other women from her community. “It is exactly what will serve the neighborhood.”

“This meeting is an active meeting,” she announced. Holmes asked community members to take out their phones, and engage in grassroots organizing by calling the mayor and their city council members one by one, and asking them to support the East Phillips Indoor Urban Farm.

“We are tired of them not listening to us and putting all their garbage on us,” Holmes stated. “We have to start somewhere and this is it.”

They took out their phones

Twenty-nine-year-old Margarita Ortega took out her phone. “I know what it’s like to grow up in pollution, and grow up with asthma and breathing problems,” Ortega said. “I have two children going through it, as well.” 

The Little Earth resident also knows what it is like to struggle to find green food, and is excited by the idea of an indoor urban farm that uses aquaponics within a few blocks of her house, one that is powered by an immense solar installation on the roof, and provides affordable housing and jobs.

Ortega shook her head when talking about city staff and council members. “They’re just worried about money and power,” she said.

Adam Fairbanks doesn’t live in South Minneapolis anymore, but his family still does. He took out his phone, too, and started calling city council members. He works with Red Lake and helped meet the needs of residents at the Wall of Forgotten Natives last year where he saw the large number of nebulizers and inhalers prescribed to those who were there. He blames the smog and pollution in Phillips for the health problems residents have. 

Photo by TESHA M. CHRISTENSEN
Phillips resident Cassandra Holmes stated, “We want to live a long life, and we don’t want any more trucks in our community.”

“I’m amazed that the city has not supported this project,” Fairbanks said.

“They don’t listen,” agreed Cindi Sutter, who has dreams of living at a revitalized Roof Depot and having access to garden plots and solar energy.

Lifelong Phillips resident Gabriel Pass pointed out that neighboring communities such as Seward, Longfellow and Corcoran will also be affected by this new pollution, and already are experiencing effects from the current levels. While biking along the Midtown Greenway earlier that day, he observed how the air smelled bad east of the Sabo Bridge.

Abah Mohamad had her phone out, too. She’s also baffled about why the city isn’t supporting the urban farm plan. “It has everything the community needs,” Mohamed pointed out, speaking on behalf of herself and three other women from her community. 

“I’m a little bit emotional and very upset. It is the only hope and only vision that this neighborhood has. It’s exactly what will serve the neighborhood.”

‘I plug my nose’

Photo by TESHA M. CHRISTENSEN
“This meeting is an active meeting,” said Cassandra Holmes on June 17. She asked community members to take out their phones, and engage in grassroots organizing by calling the mayor and their city council members one by one, asking them to support the East Phillips Indoor Urban Farm. And residents did just that.

“People tell me, “I plug my nose when I drive past your neighborhood,” observed Steve Sandberg, who encouraged people to call 311 when they smell a bad odor.

This is the sort of pollution that the Clark/Berglin Environmental Justice Law was enacted by the state legislature in 2008 to curb.

Forty-year Phillips resident and former state legislator Karen Clark authored the bill to reduce the amount of pollution in this South Minneapolis area, particularly in the Arsenic Triangle near Cedar and 28th where the Smith Foundry and Bituminous Roadways asphalt plant still operate, belching out fumes each day over Phillips, the Midtown Greenway, and South High School.

“This is what environmental injustice looks like,” Clark said. 

She pointed out that Phillips has a disproportionate amount of kids with lead poisoning, which can cause permanent neurological damage. The emergency room is full of Phillips residents who need treatment for asthma. Lawns were remediated for arsenic.

The Clark/Berglin Environmental Justice Law requires that any project in this neighborhood be reviewed by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to analyze the cumulative pollution effects — not only what will be caused by the new or expanded project. This includes city projects, such as the proposal to expand the city’s existing public works facility onto the adjacent 7.5-acre Roof Depot site. 

The city’s water maintenance facility, known as the East Water Yard, is currently located on 2.4 acres in Ward 3 at Hennepin Ave. E. and 5th Ave. N. It dates back 120 years and is the hub for maintaining the city’s 1,000 miles of water mains, 16,000 valves, and street holes, and 8,000 hydrants. The Water Distribution’s 100 maintenance staff performs valve operations, greasing and packing of hydrants, street manhole repairs, main water repairs, and leak detection. 

Replacing the maintenance yard is the last major unfinished piece of a 25-year-old master plan for updating city Department of Public Works facilities. The neighborhood organization, East Phillips Improvement Coalition (EPIC), was not notified of this plan until 2015 after it was engaged in negotiations to purchase the Roof Depot site. The city threatened eminent domain, and bought it instead of EPIC.

The city’s plans for the former Roof Depot site involve using the entire 16.4 acres to store manhole covers, sewer pipes, and sand-salt mix, and send out public work’s fleet of diesel trucks into other areas, concentrating the air pollution. EPNI has asked the city for a portion of the land over the past few years, drawing up plans for three acres, then two acres, and then one acre. 

“They said ‘No,” pointed out Holmes. And they haven’t once allowed the community group to present to the city council.

This is despite the city’s own core principal of community engagement, specifically stating the right of citizens who are affected to be involved.

“We have not had that right,” stated Phillips resident Brad Pass.

‘We don’t want any more trucks’

Those gathered on June 17 see the trouble residents have finding apartments and homes they can afford. They see the problem of not having access to fresh, green vegetables. They want their kids to have better. They want to be part of fixing things for their neighborhood and the world, and they have some bright ideas about using aquaponics and solar power in their corner of South Minneapolis. They’re inspired by the Midtown Greenway and want to fashion a neighborhood that places a high priority on biking and walking – two methods of travel that are accessible to the poor and the rich, build better health, and don’t spew pollution into the air.

They have already received some grant money, and have worked to make this affordable and more green by pinpointing a large building that they can reuse. 

In the past, neighborhood organizers have staved off the Hennepin County Garbage Transfer Station at Cedar and 28th in the mid 1990s; kept out the Midtown Eco-burner (Cogenerating Plant) in 2007; and convinced Xcel Energy to bury high voltage power lines in 2009. They were also able to transform the land at Cedar and 24th into a busy cultural and recreation center, garnering grants and other support for the massive project. They’re committed to doing that here.

Holmes stated, “We want to live a long life, and we don’t want any more trucks in our community.”

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