If you live near a factory that spews pollutants into the air, don't you deserve to know what they are and have a chance to weigh in on the company's permit?
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency thinks so. The agency is required to hold comment periods and public meetings on polluting facilities. But now agency leaders are taking it a step further by holding a series of free workshops with the goal of opening up air-pollution science to the people who live near the sources.
Over the years, those who oversee permitting at the MPCA have noticed that they don't receive as many public comments as they'd like.
"We've traced that back in our minds to the complexity of the air permits," said Don Smith, who manages the air permit program.
A permit and its supporting documents can easily be hundreds of pages long, and they can read like the most boring textbook.
At one recent training session in St. Paul, there were Hmong, Somali and Hispanic translators on hand. But even English speakers need translation when it comes to the tricky vocabulary of air pollution, said Nancy Przymus of northeast Minneapolis, who attended a recent training at the agency.
MPCA air permit engineer Jared LaFave said the training is meant to help community members learn about the permitting process so they participate in it more effectively.
"The frustrations we hear from the public are, 'You didn't stop this place,' and that's not our role," LaFave said. "Whether we feel it's right personally or not, that doesn't matter, and we have to follow the rules."
Smith, who has been at the MPCA for 33 years, said it's the first time the training has been offered. Few other states offer something similar.
"We really are doing this because we think it's right, as opposed to we have to do it under the law, and if it's the right thing to do then we should do it well," he said.
The training isn't the only effort state regulators have made to engage communities affected by pollution. The MPCA formed an environmental justice advisory group last year and has been distributing information in languages besides English. The MPCA is also under a 2014 executive order to present information in plain, clear language.
The efforts follow years of frustration by community groups — especially those representing people of color — that the people most affected by pollution weren't being included in decisions.
Residents of north and northeast Minneapolis have argued the agency's air permits are too lax given the amount of industry in the area. The agency went after one facility, Northern Metal Recycling, for alleged permit violations, resulting in a settlement earlier this year.
Still, more work is needed to eliminate the disproportionate exposure to pollution that low-income residents and people of color face, said Cecilia Martinez of the Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy.
Even with the training, community members still have limited time and resources to shape policy, she said. "We still need to build an equitably protected environment."
Training sessions continue Thursday and Friday at the Minneapolis Urban League.