Poisoning the poor: the truth about Midtown biomass


Southside Pride Editor’s Note: The proposed biomass burner for the Phillips neighborhood is a controversial issue. City leaders, community activists and concerned neighbors are all taking a closer look at the idea. Following is one resident’s opinion of the proposal.

Midtown Eco Energy would like to open a biomass burner in the Phillips neighborhood, a burner designed to use renewable urban waste wood to provide energy and hot water to the local businesses and residents. On the surface this appears to be an environmentally friendly step forward for the energy industry and the local economy. However, things are rarely as they appear.

Proponents claim that biomass burning is carbon neutral, but this term can be misleading. Plants and grasses absorb carbon dioxide during the course of their life cycle, effectively sequestering it from the atmosphere. By burning these plants, this same carbon dioxide is released back into the air, thus rendering no new CO2 released. Yet additional energy must be expended to harvest, transport and convert the biomass into electricity. Furthermore, there are many other harmful particulates and pollutants that are released in wood smoke.

According to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s study of the proposed facility, an abbreviated list of predicted pollutants include: sulfuric acid, formaldehyde, arsenic, mercury, dioxins and particulate matter 2.5, considered to be a very dangerous form of particulate matter. The MPCA studied the proposal and concluded that “more data should be collected from biomass facilities, particularly with regard to PAHs, dioxins, and mercury.” It must be noted that dioxins are the most toxic chemicals known to science, and were the primary toxic component in Agent Orange (ejnet.org/dioxin).

The real injustice is locating this facility in one of the poorest, most polluted neighborhoods in the metro. This area is already home to a foundry, an asphalt plant, a roofing company’s hot asphalt storage and the future site of the city’s hot asphalt storage. This is also home to the Arsenic Superfund Site, where arsenic was discovered to have seeped into the land. Additionally there are high levels of lead in the homes and yards nearby. The residents of the Phillips neighborhood have some of the highest asthma hospitalizations and instances of elevated blood lead levels in the metro area. The per capita income in the Phillips neighborhood averages under $19,919, with median home values under $101,1004, according to Minnesota Legislature records. This neighborhood is home to one of the highest minority populations in the metro, 40 percent of whom are children.

Children are smaller and therefore much more vulnerable to pollution. They also spend more time outside breathing the air and playing in the dirt. Furthermore, many of the residents in the neighborhood are first generation Americans struggling to learn the language and have no way to voice their concerns. These are the uninsured, underinsured or state insured.

Clearly, this is a case of environmental injustice. The locating of several major polluting facilities in the poorest of neighborhoods is no accident. These neighbors do not have the economic or political power to defend themselves against large corporations. Meanwhile, Midtown Eco Energy, the company proposing this burner, recently submitted a proposal to the Legislature asking to become tax-exempt. The proposal is specific enough to include only this particular biomass burner. Midtown Eco Energy is a for-profit company, unlike St. Paul’s biomass facility, District Energy. Midtown has also been the subject of several inquiries into its financial feasibility and investor connections. Midtown’s CEO, Michael Krauss, left his position with the Green Institute amid questions of financial mismanagement. Several key investors are prominent politicians and have been accused of “conflict of interest” while promoting this project.

“Environmental Justice” may be a relatively new term, but the idea is very old. The rich and powerful are trampling on the rights of the downtrodden. The local neighborhood associations have been actively fighting this proposed facility from the day the pollution facts came to light. But they have not been heard.

Government was established to protect the weak from the strong, but in this case, those involved in the local government stand to profit financially from polluting the back yards of the poor. Is this democracy?

Susie Tatone contributed this commentary to Southside Pride.


Previous TC Daily Planet coverage of this issue

Neighbors blast proposed Phillips biomass plant at public hearing by Dan Gordon, TC Daily Planet

CNO supports petition for environmental assessment of biomass project by Eric Gustafson, Corcoran Neighborhood News

March meltdown ahead for Midtown Eco-Energy? by Mary Turck and Dan Gordon, TC Daily Planet

Burner opponents turn out for city council meeting by Mary Turck, TC Daily Planet