Good Intentions no substitute for Authentic engagement East Side Pig’s Eye improvement plans

This article was first published in the Pioneer Press on Sunday, January 31st 2021. The published version of this article and reader comments are available on the Pioneer Press’s website. View on (Pioneer Press)

The Army Corps of Engineers, in collaboration with Ramsey County, is planning to use materials dredged from the Mississippi River to create seven islands in Pig’s Eye Lake, for the stated goals of improving wildlife habitat and reducing shoreline erosion. As can be expected with a multi-million-dollar project, it has both proponents and opponents. We do not wish to weigh in on the merits of the project but do wish to call attention to the lack of meaningful community engagement and the precedent it sets for other large projects, including those affecting our most diverse and historically neglected communities.

Pig’s Eye Lake sits immediately east of the Mississippi River in Saint Paul’s East Side, in Battle Creek Regional Park, the largest park in the city. The area surrounding the lake is part of the homelands of the Dakota. Today it boasts a diverse community, including at least half of Saint Paul’s Somali and Oromo communities and large populations of Hmong, Latinx, Karen and African American people. Although the East Side comprises over a third of the city’s land mass, the city’s investments in neighborhood revitalization, parks and housing have lagged the rest of Saint Paul.

The lake itself is most known for its birdwatching – it is prime habitat for herons, egrets, cormorants, and pelicans– and for its unique wetland ecosystem within city limits. However, despite these important natural features, the area has also been subjected to countless environmental offenses. In the 1950s, an area adjacent to the lake became the largest unpermitted dump site in the state of Minnesota for the next 20 years. Afterwards, the site became used for disposing sludge ash from the neighboring Metropolitan Council Wastewater Treatment plant. In 1989, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency declared the dump a Superfund site, and a 2000 report from that agency identified that polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), lead, boron, cobalt, aluminum, zinc, ammonia, chloride, and mercury had been discharged from the dump site into the lake at levels that exceeded water quality standards.  Over the years, numerous agencies and citizen groups have worked to clean up the area. However, despite these efforts, it continues to hold significant levels of contaminated materials.  

Given the lake’s unique features, the troubled management of this site, the history of neglect toward its surrounding East Side communities, and the potential risks related to existing contamination, one might expect projects concerning the site to display an abundance of sensitivity and outreach toward affected communities. However, the Army Corps of Engineers and County have largely pursued the opposite route, minimizing outreach to affected communities, curtailing opportunities for citizen engagement, and relegating the meaningful engagement to the level of closed inter-agency meetings.

This type of engagement strategy is best captured in the Army Corps’ May 2018 Feasibility Report and Environmental Assessment, which declares in its Environmental Justice section that: “Minority groups were identified in communities surrounding the project area; however, the project itself would not have any adverse effects on surrounding communities. Therefore, neither the no action alternative nor the proposed action would cause a disproportionate impact on any population.” The unilateral determination of no adverse effects on surrounding communities is deeply troubling and highlights a type of paternalism that should have no place in 21st century land management.

Unfortunately, this approach is reflected throughout the project’s community engagement process, which was almost non-existent. No presentations were made at District Councils, for example, nor were the councils invited to submit comments. Instead, engagement was mostly restricted to two public comment windows in Spring 2018 and Fall 2019. During the first window, no comments were received from ordinary citizens and community member; they simply had no reasonable way of knowing about this project. While citizens did respond to the second comment window, it is evident that this was not designed as a back-and-forth engagement, but rather as a final defense of the project; a box to be checked en route to the project launch.

While the project itself may have valid objectives, it falls embarrassingly short of minimum standards for what might be considered meaningful community engagement. Rather than reaching out to neighboring communities early in the process, the Army Corps and County determined they were unaffected and made no reasonable effort to promote an open dialogue: the right for residents to ask questions, to be heard, to offer perspectives, and to be included in the planning process. This is not in keeping with 21st century standards of community engagement, and it creates good reason to question the advancement of this project. As part of the effort to foster inclusivity, respect for diverse communities, and confront legacies of discrimination, our city leaders would do well to step back and re-evaluate the Pig’s Eye Lake project.