Why Activists Are Fighting the Roof Depot Demolition

Last week, police ousted a group of Indigenous-led activists and neighbors who had set up a camp at the Roof Depot site in Minneapolis’s East Phillips neighborhood. The city is planning to demolish the 230,000-square-foot depot warehouse and replace it with a water maintenance facility, while the activists—and a broader swath of East Phillips and Little Earth residents—want to buy it and transform it into an urban farm. Though demolition was slated to begin as early as February 27, an injunction has delayed it for the time being. 

And while activists and neighbors are fighting for an urban farm, they’re also fighting against something else: pollution. The Roof Depot project has been especially contentious because East Phillips has historically seen levels of pollution and environmental contamination at levels you won’t find in many other south Minneapolis neighborhoods. As efforts to halt the demolition continue over the weekend, here’s a closer look at why activists and residents are fighting this project tooth and nail—and why many of them see it as an issue of environmental racism. 

What kind of pollution has East Phillips historically been exposed to?

Karen Clark, who represented the East Phillips neighborhood in the state legislature for 38 years, points to three main sources of cumulative pollution in the neighborhood: traffic, air pollution from the nearby Smith Foundry and Bituminous Roadways asphalt plant, and environmental contamination in the area known as the Arsenic Triangle. East Phillips, which includes Little Earth of United Tribes, is bordered by Hiawatha Avenue to the east, I-94 to the north, and Lake Street to the south. Cedar Avenue runs through it. All are high-traffic routes. The Smith Foundry and Bituminous Roadways asphalt plant on 28th Street are grandfathered in from the 20th century, when this area was a heavy industrial zone. There’s no buffer between them and the surrounding neighborhood—residents say that odors often waft into their homes in the summer. 

In 2008, Clark authored first-of-its-kind legislation that requires any new operations in the neighborhood to account for the “cumulative effects” of long-term pollution when they consider their environmental impact. The gist of the legislation is that multiple sources of pollution in the East Phillips have exposed residents to health risks that, cumulatively, are higher than those in most majority-white Minneapolis neighborhoods. (East Phillips is one of the Twin Cities’ most racially and culturally diverse neighborhoods—approximately 75 percent of residents are people of color.)

What’s the Arsenic Triangle? 

Between 1938 and 1963, a grasshopper pesticide plant operated near the intersection of 28th Street and what’s now Hiawatha Avenue. During manufacturing, arsenic-laced dusted blew off the plant into the surrounding area, contaminating the soil. Years later, the EPA deemed the area one of the nation’s worst hazardous waste sites and dug up the yards of more than 600 properties in the surrounding neighborhoods between 2004 and 2011. According to the CDC, exposure to arsenic can damage the eyes, lungs, kidneys, skin, liver, and lymphatic system, and cause cancer. One concern is that the Roof Depot demolition may expose arsenic-contaminated soil beneath the property.

What health impacts are activists and residents concerned about?

Beyond the potential exposure to arsenic, East Phillips residents are concerned that the public works facility’s fleet of work trucks will increase air pollution in the neighborhood. Many residents have underlying conditions that are exacerbated by air pollutants. Asthma among both children and adults is a major issue in the area: the zip codes around East Phillips have two to four times the rates of asthma hospitalizations and ED visits compare to the larger Twin Cities metro, according to a racial equity analysis of the project. But air pollution is also linked to diseases you might not expect: It’s a leading cause of type 2 diabetes and insulin resistance, and is linked to heart disease and triggering heart attacks. 

What does the city have to say about the public works facility’s impacts?

The city has worked closely with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to develop a cleanup plan for the site. Stephen Jansen, principal scientist with Braun Intertec Corporation, the city’s geotechnical consultant on the project, said in a press conference that hundreds of soil samples at the Roof Depot site have been taken, and while arsenic has been detected in some areas, only one had elevated levels of more than 100 micrograms per kilogram. The clean-up plan involves removing contaminated soil: workers will wet the soil down, monitor dust emissions at the property’s perimeter, and implement dust control measures, as is industry standard, says Jansen.

As far as traffic goes, the new public works facility will have a total of 888 parking spaces, split between fleet vehicles and employee vehicles, and include a three-story parking ramp. Some of these will be diesel vehicles—significant sources of particulate air pollution—though Margaret Anderson Kelliher, director of the Minnesota Department of Public works, said that the total number of diesel vehicles will be “low,” and most vehicles traveling to and from the site will be gasoline-powered or electric. 

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