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Industries in East Phillips unjustly pollute area

Inside the Smith Foundry site on 28th and Cedar, just a few blocks from South

Inside the Smith Foundry site on 28th and Cedar, just a few blocks from South

Kendra Roedl

Inside the Smith Foundry site on 28th and Cedar, just a few blocks from South

Kendra Roedl

Kendra Roedl

Inside the Smith Foundry site on 28th and Cedar, just a few blocks from South

Industries in East Phillips unjustly pollute area

De-industrialize the East Phillips neighborhood

October 6, 2015

Last month a decision was made by the city to not purchase a warehouse, currently owned by Roof Depot, to use as a water yard and road maintenance facility.  This was great news, especially to the community members that have been working and organizing against it for many months.

The Roof Depot site is just three blocks from South and faces the Midtown Greenway that many students use to get to school.  Putting the site there would increase the amount of diesel truck traffic going in and out of the neighborhood, as well as generally further industrialize it.

Within a block of the warehouse already exists a foundry, a hot tar storage facility owned by a roofing company, an asphalt plant, and an asphalt hot-mix storage site for the City of Minneapolis Public Works Department.  That may answer the question “What is that smell?” East Phillips community members and students ask when they go down 21st Ave, or take the Greenway.  The smell leaves more impacts on the community, though, than just a wrinkled nose.  These are harmful asthma-causing pollutants and carcinogens, that the East Phillips neighborhood and South students disproportionately and inequitably have to put up with.

Having all of these industries here is environmental racism.The majority of the community members in East Phillips are people of color, and the median income of the neighborhood is under $30,000 a year.    Carol Pass of the East Phillips Improvement Coalition (EPIC) spoke to this injustice in an article in the Longfellow Nokomis Messenger, “Racism is doing things like this to people like this, low-income families and children of color. It’s what you do to people who have less political and financial strength than the people making the decisions. This is racism.”

Further industrializing the East Phillips neighborhood also goes against the city’s goals set forth by Mayor Betsy Hodges and the City Council to reduce racism and increase community engagement.

In addition to being a poorer community, East Phillips has more children than any other neighborhood.    There is an increased risk of getting asthma in this neighborhood and a lower average income which means folks may not be getting the medical attention they may need.  Asthma is the leading cause of students missing school.  Students here are not receiving the same education as their peers on whiter, high-income neighborhoods.  Students that face education disparities are less likely to go to college, and are more likely to face poverty and/or incarceration.  Victims of environmental injustice face a long line of barriers and problems.  

Despite this and the communities pushback against placing the water yard here, on June 19th, the City Council approved moving forward with it, in a 10-3 vote.  Among those that voted against it were council members Alondra Cano of Ward 9, where the water yard would be located, Andrew Johnson of Ward 12, and Cam Gordon of Ward 2.    

Council member Cano has been a champion of environmental justice in the past and has been working closely with community members, EPIC, and Tamales y Bicicletas, a local organization that has been a leader in this campaign, against the water yard.  These groups and community members have been mobilizing and taking action against it, despite the fact that the city has been planning to purchase this site for the water yard since 2001, but the community only found out about it last November.  I was amongst one of many at several of these multi-generational community meetings, where we discussed what we wanted from the city, different purposes the roof depot site could hold, and how we want to achieve our goals.  Being a Ward 12 resident, I felt like I couldn’t dictate what the community needed, being that I can leave the neighborhood and go to my home whenever I wanted, but I feel the need to support the effort and make the city listen to its community members since it’s where I work and go to school.

As South students, this is something we should care about.  We spend a lot of our time in this area, and interact with a lot of people in the community, and many South students live in this neighborhood.  It’s also been reported the worst of the pollution falls on our football field.  I know I don’t want to be breathing in toxic air when I walk to Pineda or while at a soccer game.

As young people, we need to also care about what’s going on because we’ll be the ones that have to deal with it in the future, and if we want to effectively and equitably make change, we have to shift the power from those who currently have it to those who don’t, and who are harmfully impacted by their decisions.

South students have power.  We have seen that the community cares about us.  It’s likely you were greeted by cheers and high-fives on the first day of school by community members, parents, and elected officials.  They all want us to succeed.  We need to show them that to succeed we need to go to school where none of us are coming from areas that have been polluted and industrialized because we may lack political and/or financial power.

Roof Depot may have chosen not to sell its site to the city, but that doesn’t solve the air pollution problem, nor create justice.  As for next steps, Tamales y Bicicletas posted this statement on their site: “It is time to celebrate, applaud, give out hugs, and definitely move our campaign forward, declaring that if any person, institution or company wants to move into our neighborhood they must first sign a Community Benefits Agreement with us on sustainability, inclusiveness, and employment. We will keep building and organizing for a real and lasting vision of Environmental Justice!”

It’s not just about the water yard.  It’s about giving power to a community that for so long has lacked it.  It’s about increasing air quality so that all students have equal access to education, everyday.  It’s about justice.  

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