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In Carlton County, a battle over green cemeteries spirals to affect the whole state




Vern Simula wanted the story of his life to end where it began. In the earth of Carlton County.

Simula, 90, was born in Cloquet and generations of his family rest in a local cemetery. But when he tried to make his own arrangements, the cemetery turned him away.

Simula wants a green burial. No embalming. No glossy coffins with satin pillows. No makeup on his cheeks to create the illusion of life. Just a grave, a shroud and a return to the earth.

“My body is a temple, with its [30] trillion cells,” said Simula, a longtime advocate for green burials. “Those cells are valuable to creation. I don’t want them pickled with formaldehyde and I don’t want them incinerated in a waste of fossil fuels.”

Not every cemetery welcomes a green burial, but Simula thought he had found a new resting place — a new green cemetery was set to open in Carlton County. But a battle between the cemetery and its uncomfortable neighbors spiraled into a ban that will stop any new green cemeteries from opening in Minnesota for the next two years.

Individual green burials will continue — the practice is central to many faiths. But two years is a long time to ask Vern Simula to wait for the state to study humanity’s oldest burial practice.

When his hometown cemetery turned him away, Simula made arrangements to be buried instead at Fort Snelling National Cemetery, which accommodates green burials, particularly for Jewish and Muslim veterans.

Then came plans for a new green cemetery right in Carlton County, in beautiful Blackhoof Township.

A 20-acre hayfield was going to be converted into the Loving Earth Memorial Gardens. There would be trees and wildflowers and walking paths. People would be buried in plain pine boxes or biodegradable wicker coffins or simple shrouds. There would be no marble headstones and manicured lawns and no concrete grave liners to stop the earth from sagging as the coffins decayed. Families would be invited to walk the trails and pick blueberries from the bushes they planted over their loved one’s grave.

That was what Matt Connell pictured when he bought the site and filed his paperwork with the county.

“It never crossed my mind that people would be angry over it,” said Connell, who lives in Crystal and teamed up with the New Jersey-based Steelmantown Cemetery Co. to start the business. “I was naïve. I thought people would really like this.”

But where Connell saw a peaceful park, some neighbors saw a nightmare.

Strangers’ bodies in unmarked graves they could see from their kitchen windows. What if coyotes dug someone up? What if the cemetery contaminated nearby wetlands or wells? Would it spread disease? Would it crowd the roads with traffic? Would it change the character of the entire community?

As residents circulated petitions and spoke out against the plan at public meetings, county officials drafted new cemetery regulations and declined to register the cemetery plat.

And then the Minnesota Legislature got involved.

The Minnesota Senate Health and Human Services Committee held a hearing on green burials in March and a bipartisan cross-section of state lawmakers did not like what they heard. A two-year moratorium on new green cemeteries was tucked into one of the end-of-session spending bills, with with orders for the Department of Health to investigate. The study will cost taxpayers an estimated $79,000.

The idea of a green burial can seem distasteful and even disrespectful in a country accustomed to a more sanitized view of death. It’s been generations since we washed the bodies of our dead ourselves and laid them out in the parlor with pennies on their eyelids.

“It’s very different than what we’re used to,” said Dr. Rebecca Wurtz, director of the Public Health Administration and Policy program at the University of Minnesota. “But it’s what was done for hundreds of thousands of years. … Certain religions feel very strongly that this is exactly the way someone should be buried.”

Dead bodies and green burials are not a threat to public health.

There are only a handful of infectious diseases that can be spread from dead bodies to the living, Wurtz said — cholera, anthrax, ebola. The rest of the 39 trillion microbes we each carry — viruses, bacteria, fungi — decay with us into the soil.

Allison Ronning, who lives in the nearby town of Kerrick, is an end-of-life doula — helping families through the process of death. A green burial would be her choice. If state lawmakers had given her a choice.

“I told my family, ‘This is the way I want to go,'” she said. A good death is a gift, she said, and we only get one shot at it.

Simula, who will be 92 by the time the study concludes, has gathered 300 signatures on a petition asking the Health Department to hurry up.

Connell says he has already turned grieving families away.

“Which kind of breaks my heart,” he said. “I hope that all of us, opponents and proponents alike, will be friends one day. And we’ll all have a laugh about it, and we’ll all be looking out at this beautiful arboretum cemetery and sharing in its beauty.”

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Star Tribune

Striking workers shut down Minneapolis Park Board meeting with three-hour protest




Workers who are striking the Minneapolis Park Board for the first time in the agency’s 141-year history took the fight over their stalled contract negotiations to commissioners Wednesday night, demonstrating at their meeting for three hours straight until the board was forced to adjourn without getting anything done.

Commissioners Becky Alper and Tom Olsen started the meeting by attempting to amend the agenda with a resolution directing park managers to promptly settle with union workers. They asked the Park Board’s negotiating team to offer Local 363 a proposal with market adjustments that union leaders have committed to accepting verbally and in writing, but without the contract takeaways the union calls “poison pills” — such as provisions to reduce the number of stewards, double probation time for new hires and make automatic seniority raises discretionary.

“This unprecedented situation diverts our attention from our primary mission: preserving, protecting‚ maintaining, improving and enhancing parks,” said Alper. “Without this resolution we face as the Park Board a perilous path forward. It’s one with no end in sight. It’s one where we gradually crawl out of this hole while parks deteriorate, where workers’ families are impacted without paychecks and dissatisfaction grows among the public.”

Commissioners Alper, Olsen and Billy Menz supported amending the agenda to allow discussion of the resolution. However, Park Board President Meg Forney, Vice President Cathy Abene and Commissioners Steffanie Musich, Elizabeth Shaffer and Becka Thompson rejected the amendment (Commissioner Charles Rucker was absent).

Workers in the gallery shouted their dissatisfaction, asking why the commissioners refused to end the strike, now in its third week. The work stoppage has disrupted storm cleanup of the parks, canceled concerts at the Lake Harriet bandshell and caused maintenance jams across the system.

The only dissenter to respond was Thompson, who said she did not understand how the contract offer described in the Alper-Olsen resolution would affect the whole system. Menz, who voted to amend the agenda, added that his colleagues did not want to appear unsupportive of their negotiating team, which includes Superintendent Al Bangoura.

Kevin Pranis, Local 363′s marketing manager, said park officials were negotiating like they wanted to break the strike rather than settle it. He said it was only after seven months of stalled negotiations, and a 94% vote by Local 363 membership to authorize a strike, that the park negotiating team locked onto the “poison pill” takeaways.

“What’s happened now is that management has decided, after 140 years of Park Board history there’s never been a strike, that the goal … is now to make sure that for another 140 years no one will consider striking because they got hurt so badly in this strike,” Pranis told commissioners. “That no other union will ever consider going on strike.”

Every time commissioners attempted to move onto other business, park workers and allies from other unions formed a picket line around the board room, chanting “No contract, no peace!” and “What’s disgusting? Union busting!”

Individual workers spoke directly to commissioners, saying they had received discipline without due process and describing grievances they have pending with managers that likely have not risen to commissioners’ attention.

As the demonstration dragged on without comments from the dais, commissioners ate their dinners and had whispered conversations with each other and park lawyer Brian Rice, while the union ordered dinner from Portillo’s.

Commissioners finally walked out of the room around 8 p.m., three hours after the meeting began, without working through the agenda. Items not acted on included a resolution to transfer $10 million from neighborhood parks across the city to the redesign of North Commons Park, and extension of the lease for the Boys and Girls Club at Phelps Park.

Terryl Brumm, CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of the Twin Cities, left the meeting early, saying that while the Club’s lease of the Phelps Recreation Center now technically expires, she was confident the Park Board won’t evict them.

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Rochester blocks comments on city social media pages




ROCHESTER – Residents here with questions or concerns about city government will no longer be able to use official city social media pages to air their grievances.

On Wednesday, the city of Rochester began restricting social media users from leaving comments on posts from its official Facebook and Instagram pages, as well as pages for parks, police and other departments.

City Administrator Alison Zelms said the policy is in response to what she described as “counterproductive” activity on the city’s social media pages.

“Discontinuing the use of comments effectively reduces the potential for harmful content and negative interactions because it removes an unmoderated and monitored forum for those activities,” Zelms wrote in the announcement.

Comment sections on city posts were typically not monitored by departments, city officials said, due to “staffing challenges” and a prioritization of resources to other city needs. Rochester Public Schools also no longer allows public comments on its posts.

Mayor Kim Norton, who has spoken previously about the negative interactions she has had online, also disabled comments on her pages on Wednesday. Users will now only be able to react (by emoji) to posts or reshare a post with comments to their own personal pages. Norton said she remains available by phone or email.

“I believe this change will support our efforts to provide information, and also to create a better, safer digital environment for all,” Norton said in a statement.

Within hours of the announcement, threads on other sites began filling up with questions about the legality of the new city policy, with some users suggesting it amounted to censorship.

But Dr. Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota, said the city is within its rights to discontinue public comments on its social media channels. Kirtley noted that while local governments cannot block comments based on one viewpoint or another, they are under no obligation to manage a public forum on social media.

“They can decide to discontinue the public forum if they choose,” Kirtley said. “If they do allow public comments, they can only impose reasonable restrictions on time, place, and manner. These restrictions must be viewpoint neutral.”

On social media threads — ones not managed by the city — there were a few users who defended the government’s decision to restrict comments, noting that city threads are often cesspools of comments from people trolling and harassing public officials.

But overwhelmingly, users were critical of the move. One commenter wrote that while “the change may simplify some aspects of the city’s social media management … eliminating open dialogue among constituents on the platforms most people use to connect is certainly not going to improve community engagement or help build trust in local government.”

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Judge blocks MPCA from restricting hours at St. Paul iron foundry accused of pollution




A judge has blocked the state from limiting operating hours and imposing other restrictions intended to reduce air pollution from a St. Paul iron foundry.

Earlier this year, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency ordered Northern Iron, LLC, to limit its daily operations to control airborne lead and particulate matter, which can damage the lungs and circulatory system when inhaled.

But in a ruling issued July 11, Ramsey County District Judge Leonardo Castro partially granted Northern Iron’s request for an injunction, preventing the state from enforcing limits on how much metal the company could melt in a day and what hours it could operate. Northern Iron says the agency’s demands would make the foundry go out of business.

The judge left intact other provisions of MPCA’s order, and ordered the business and the agency to work together on a new air permit and installing new pollution control equipment. MPCA has said the business’ own modeling shows it is releasing pollutants at thousands of times the level allowed by law.

Alex Lawton, CEO of foundry owner Lawton Standard, told the Star Tribune that after the ruling, he “felt relief for the folks who were laid off that who wanted to come back to work.” The company announced shortly after MPCA’s order that it would have to cut 15% of its workforce, but is now operating with its full staffing of about 80 employees.

MPCA said in an email sent out shortly after the ruling that it “respectfully disagrees” with the decision.

“We stand ready to hold the company accountable should pollution emissions exceed [air quality] standards, to protect the health company employees and nearby residents,” agency spokesperson Andrea Cournoyer wrote in a statement.

Northern Iron opened at 867 N. Forest St. in St. Paul’s Payne-Phalen neighborhood in 1906. It molds made-to-order components that other companies use in finished products. Lawton Standard bought the business in 2022.

Sidney Pisano, vice chair of the Payne-Phalen Community Council, said the court decision has left the neighborhood feeling “disregarded.”

“It feels like we don’t matter, and I think that’s a sentiment a lot of East Siders have felt for a long time,” she said.

The situation has played out differently than the regulation of another urban iron casting company. Smith Foundry spurred complaints of bad smells and air pollution for years from neighbors in Minneapolis’ East Phillips neighborhood. The EPA took the lead on an investigation there, after a surprise inspection last year, and got the foundry to agree to shut down its furnace and casting operations in a settlement. Some in the area were frustrated it took action by EPA, not MPCA, to address the issues.

In the Northern Iron case, MPCA has led the enforcement, including a $41,500 fine imposed on the foundry last year for changing its pollution controls without reporting it to the state. Lawton said the Smith Foundry case was hanging over the regulation of his own business, and suggested it had encouraged regulators to take a stronger hand.

“I think Smith and certain other factors like that seemed to be omnipresent,” he said.

Since the fine last year, MPCA and the foundry have been discussing how to reduce its emissions. After one round of modelling showed that the particulate matter and lead released were thousands of times higher than federal rules allow, Northern Iron then came up with new calculations to show how the emissions would change if they altered their hours or installed new equipment.

The particulate pollution would still be higher than allowed, and the calculations for lead “seemingly defy the conservation of mass and likely cause an underestimate of lead emissions at some sources,” according to MPCA’s administrative order.

The company contends that it’s not polluting, because monitors stationed around the foundry show the air doesn’t exceed state limits on contaminants. It is still planning to install two air filters and make other improvements at the building, a project that will cost around $2 million, Lawton said.

But Cournoyer said that the foundry’s current permit requires it to use modeling to show it is meeting air quality standards.

The foundry and the state agency will next be in court on Aug. 22, when MPCA will argue to dismiss the case. Northern Iron said it plans to submit a new air permit application by August.

“I feel glad the MPCA is keeping the pressure on,” Pisano said.

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