“The community and local businesses came together to demand environmental justice,” said Northeast resident Phil Harder. On the evening of Wednesday, Sept. 7, about 50 North and Northeast residents of Minneapolis gathered on the north side of the Lowry Avenue Bridge. Cars slowed and heads turned, as residents of all ages placed gas masks upon their faces and held signs that read, “Danger Lead Air, Stop Northern Metal.”
When the group began their march across the bridge, chants echoed across the Mississippi and cars honked their horns in support as they made their way to Harder’s residence on Marshall Street. The crowd spread throughout Harder’s comfortable backyard where The Anchor Fish and Chips had already set up their truck. Aged wooden stairs led down a grassy hill to a cozy beach and dock right on the Mississippi. With a clear view of Northern Metal Recycling directly across the river, the discussion about environmental justice began.
“I don’t have a car, so I walk and ride my bike a lot,” said downtown Minneapolis resident, Rebecca MacDonald. “I want to breathe clean air while I’m outside and everyone, regardless of zip code and income, deserves to live without pollution.”
MacDonald volunteers for Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC), a Minneapolis nonprofit, who informed her about the Northern Metal Recycling (NMR) pollution problem. “There were community members from all parts of Minneapolis coming together for a common goal,” MacDonald said, “one that should be a no-brainer, healthy air.”
Residents came together at this event to learn and talk about issues that focused on the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s (MPCA’s), recent detection of high levels of airborne lead from NMR. They also celebrated the recent court ordered shutdown that occurred on Sept. 2, temporarily shutting down the metal recovery plant and the attached rain and snow shed. “The recent court ordered shutdown is a step in the right direction but this is only a portion of the plant, and it may be temporary,” Harder said.
According to Harder, many who attended the event were very surprised to find out that the metal shredder remains fully operational, seven days a week. “Many thought the metal shredder would be shut down entirely on Sept. 2, only to look out across the river to hear the noise and continue to see dust from the scrap yard and the metal shredder,” said Harder. “Many residents and even some of our elected officials at the event were confused by why the shutdown was only partial. Some expressed concern for the workers at the plant who are in the thick of the pollution.” A couple of the elected officials who showed their support at the event were Minneapolis City Council members, Jacob Frey and Kevin Reich.
The Northeaster was unsuccessful in ascertaining if Northern Metal had any explanation, or comment on the event.
As the sun began to set behind the metal scraps and dust of NMR, local Minneapolis synthpop and alternative rock band Poliça floated in on a houseboat, and docked in front of the estimated 300-person crowd. The band’s psychedelic vibrations traveled in the late summer breeze, and lead singer Channy Leaneagh’s dreamy voice set the tone as projections were cast across the river onto the walls of Northern Metals’ building.
Projections varied, some resembled signs that were earlier carried across the Lowry Bridge. Others, in-between haunting images and a mixture of bewitching neon flowers, displayed facts about NMR’s pollution.
“I knew that the air smelled bad, and probably wasn’t good, but I had never thought to be seriously concerned,” said South Minneapolis resident Sara Suppan, who shares an art studio in the Pacific Building near NMR. After hearing about the pollution issues, she too decided to join forces with NOC and attend the march. “The Poliça show and the light projections were amazing. Projecting directly onto Northern Metal was so clever,” said Suppan, “I hope that images of the event circulate.”
Harder explained how the environmental justice event was born, after Leaneagh saw a video he had made documenting dust and emissions pouring from NMR’s scrap yard and metal shredder building. “Channy lives in North Minneapolis and has serious concerns about the health of her young children,” said Harder, “she also heard concerns from other families in the area who want to understand the health risks from Northern Metal’s lead pollution.”
After some discussion, the decision was made to hold an event to bring people of North and Northeast Minneapolis together to celebrate community efforts and to inform them about Northern Metal’s lead air pollution. “We were successful in accomplishing that,” Harder said. “We added a light show and used huge video projections that pointed out the issues, literally using the shredder building as our screen, hundreds of feet across the Mississippi River.”
Harder is a part of “Manufacture,” a new experiential marketing agency led by him and his working partner Steve Sutherland. “We’re a collective of makers and problem solvers, using art, technology and media to connect with an audience in unique ways,” said Harder. “This outdoor event for example, is a different way of ‘marketing’ an idea. We used live music, art, light and projections to inform the public about a serious environmental danger. Social media then spread the word via #dangerleadair.”
According to Harder they even received a video of support from U.S. Representative Keith Ellison. “We received an overwhelming response beyond those who were at the event,” said Harder, “we also pointed out that lead pollution has created disasters in two other Midwestern cities this year, Chicago and Flint. People in North and Northeast Minneapolis understand that this environmental justice issue is very real.”
Previous to Manufacture, Sutherland was an agency director, leading digital and experiential production teams. And Harder has been directing music videos, feature films, commercials and documentaries for years. “The combination of director and producer works equally well on the experiential side,” said Harder, “only everything is scaled as more components and technologies are in play. We love the challenge.” To learn more about what they do, visit www.wearemanufacture.com. According to Harder, everyone involved with Manufacture’s very first event volunteered their time, and they had about 30 volunteers from the community.
“I’m so grateful to Phil Harder and Steve Sutherland and the many volunteers for doing all the hard work in a short amount of time to make the event happen! It was a huge undertaking of neighbors and friends coming together, to help each other scream louder for clean air and lead free living,” said Leaneagh. “It was powerful to sit in Phil Harder’s backyard on such a beautiful night looking out onto the Mississippi River and see the problem so clearly and up close. I smell and taste Northern Metals outside in my yard, but Phil and other people that live on the river have it in their faces all day and night.”
“We all know the damaging effects of lead in children from Flint, Michigan. Our hearts go out to those children and their families. We hope to learn from these injustices and try to protect residents in North and Northeast now,” Harder said. “Since Northern Metal lost barge transit last year, they have expressed a need to move as well. Why wait to close this polluter? We cannot risk inaction on lead air pollution that residents cannot escape. The people at this event demanded that Northern Metal be closed permanently.”
Channy Leaneagh’s reasons for joining this fight unfortunately hit close to home. Her son is ten months old, and she said their house had been checked for lead safety while she was pregnant and they were told they were in the clear. However, “at seven months my son had elevated lead levels. Now I am investigating where it is coming from so we can stop it at the source and protect him from further poisoning,” said Leaneagh.
She is currently having her house re-tested. Then she will begin to uncover how much lead her son is getting from the environment, and how much is in her control. “I’m focusing on passing out information to my neighbors so they can have their kids tested. And educating myself on ways parents can help kids flush out as much of the lead as possible through diet and certain mineral supplements,” Leaneagh said.
Leaneagh mentioned she wants to get her North Minneapolis neighbors more involved on this issue, and to start spreading the news that the city offers free lead testing through organizations like CLEARCorps MN and the Sustainable Resources Center. She also hopes to work alongside the Bottineau Neighborhood Association, to do cancer studies in the Hawthorne Neighborhood in North Minneapolis.
Local musician and singer Sean Tillmann, stage name Har Mar Superstar, also attended the event. Tillmann, who is friends with Harder as well as the members of Poliça, showed support and concern for his community and neighbors.
Like his neighbor Harder, Tillmann lives directly across the river from NMR and never realized it existed until he moved into the neighborhood. “It’s pretty well hidden until you get passed the trees on the edge of the river. I was pretty dumbfounded that such a monstrosity of pollution was just shredding away at metals right on the bank of the Mississippi River,” Tillmann said. “Also, many of my friends and neighbors are at higher risk of asthma and respiratory disease because of the operation. Most days you can smell the toxins in the air. It’s gross.”
With the help of local musicians, producers and directors, residents from all over Minneapolis were given the chance to learn about this issue, and discuss with one another their concerns and solutions. “It was a fantastic night to gather and meet friends old and new in the name of a good cause,” said Tillmann.