First part of a three-part series.
For a decade, 2009-2019, North Minneapolis’ Hawthorne neighborhood was home to Northern Metal Recycling, a metal shredding operation which added air pollution to an area already beset by polluting industries.
More than 75 percent of Hawthorne residents are Black, Indigenous or other people of color. The neighborhood’s median household income in 2017 was under $30,000. Its zip code had the highest hospitalization rate for asthma of any in the state, the Star Tribune reported that year.
Northern Metal is a case study in the flaws in the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s (MPCA’s) regulatory approach. When the agency approved Northern Metal’s permit, it didn’t adequately consider the cumulative impacts on North Minneapolis nor react in a timely manner when air quality violations occurred.
The MPCA identified a dozen other businesses within a one-mile radius of Northern Metal that had air quality permits of some kind. They included G&K Services (dry cleaner), Diamond Vogel North Inc. (paint and urethane manufacturer), GAF Materials Corp (asphalt roofing products) and Hard Chrome Inc. (an electroplating facility).
Healing Minnesota Stories emailed the MPCA a series of questions, including the following:
It seemed like the MPCA had a difficult time identifying Northern Metal as the source of air quality violations. How does MPCA currently resolve air quality problems when there are multiple polluters in one area, all of which are contributing to a violation of air quality standards?
MPCA Spokesman Michael Rafferty’s replied:
The MPCA started a special project to monitor air quality in a heavily industrialized area of North Minneapolis. Because of the number of potential sources of air pollutants in the area, MPCA worked to learn more about emissions from nearby facilities and continues to partner with them to improve air quality in North Minneapolis.
It’s a brief and vague answer. It seems to assume problems can be resolved through partnering with industry, an approach that failed with Northern Metal. It’s silent on enforcement options.
Rafferty also wrote: “The MPCA’s first priority is to protect human health and the environment.”
The MPCA’s actions didn’t match its priority. North Minneapolis residents suffered from poor air quality for years due to the agency’s lax enforcement.
Roxxanne O’Brien and her three children moved within a mile of Northern Metal in 2014, according to a Minnesota Daily article. They began having frequent headaches and breathing problems, something other neighbors had experienced, she said.
O’Brien began to suspect that Northern Metal was part of the problem. She would become a leading community voice pushing the state to shut down Northern Metal Recycling.
Healing Minnesota Stories asked O’Brien about the MPCA’s role in addressing air pollution problems in her neighborhood. She said the agency wasn’t helpful: “We didn’t work together,” she said. “It was more like pulling teeth.”
The Northern Metal site, 2800 Pacific St. N., started as a scrap yard in 1951.
A 1995 Risk Assessment concluded that the project’s cancer risks exceeded the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) threshold. (Chemicals of concern included arsenic, beryllium, and hexavalent chromium.)
American Iron proposed additional filters to reduce emissions.
The MPCA eventually approved the project, and did so without requiring an environmental impact statement. The agency concluded “the Kondirator did not have the potential for significant environmental effect,” court records said.
Future events would challenge that assessment.
The City of Minneapolis and the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board sued to block the Kondirator. The metal shredder would be within a half mile of several city parks, including Farview, Gluek and Edgewater. (See map above.)
The city lost in court, twice. It ended up paying American Iron $8.75 million for the cost of delays.
The Kondirator never got built.
Northern Metal Recycling incorporated in 2006. It bought American Iron and Supply in 2007, including its air permit. It began operations in June, 2009 with what it called a “first-of-its-kind” pollution control system.
Air quality violations followed.
Over the years, Northern Metal offered several responses to reported air quality violations. It said its pollution controls were “state of the art.” worked fine. It denied it was the source of the problem, saying there were other industrial polluters in the area. It said the MPCA was unfairly singling out the company for the neighborhoods air quality problems. It promised to move if the MPCA would back off enforcement. Towards the end, it went as far as to falsify air monitoring documents, apparently stalling for time.
In December, 2009, six months into operations, the MPCA’s initial air testing found Northern Metal was exceeding total particulate air pollution from its stack by 204 percent and small particle pollution by 258 percent. Mercury pollution also exceeded permitted levels by 32 percent.
Small particle air pollution is particularly harmful. It can result in premature death in people with heart or lung disease, nonfatal heart attacks, irregular heartbeat, and aggravated asthma, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said.
The MPCA started an enforcement action against Northern Metal in January, 2010. Oddly, Northern Metal ended up being the beneficiary.
Northern Metal attorneys said the company couldn’t meet the air quality standards in the existing permit, the Twin Cities Daily Planet reported. The company agreed to submit a major amendment to its air permit. As proposed, it:
- Allowed the company to shred entire “auto hulks,” something prohibited under the original permit.
- Increased allowable pollution levels and reduced testing frequency.
- Increased plant revenue by $2 million a month.
The recycling operation serves an important function. It keeps scrap metal out of landfills and reduces the need for mining. Even so, the Sierra Club’s North Star Chapter stood with the neighborhood in raising environmental concerns:
The community and Sierra Club continue to argue that the increased pollution limits (to allow Northern Metals to shred whole vehicles instead of parts) are significant because of the cumulative effects this community faces. …
The reality is this community has higher than average rates of asthma and cancer and more industrial smokestacks spewing air pollution that contributes to those illnesses into the air.Sierra Club blog, Sept. 27, 2012
The MPCA approved Northern Metal’s updated permit on Oct. 30, 2012 – nearly three years after the MPCA first identified air quality violations. The permit seems to have failed to address the problem and likely made things worse.
The MPCA rejected area lawmakers’ requests for further environmental studies. The agency made that decision “after concluding that the shredder would increase the area’s concentration of more dangerous small particles by 2 percent,” the Star Tribune reported.
In an email interview with Healing Minnesota Stories, the MPCA acknowledged that the updated permit allowed higher pollution levels than the original permit, “but the permitted emissions still were within allowable limits,” it said.
A few months after approving Northern Metal’s updated permit, the MPCA began community-based air monitoring. In January, 2013, the agency started measuring fine particle pollution on Lowry Avenue. In October, 2014 it began testing for total suspended particle (TSP) pollution at the same site.
In the first month of TSP testing, the monitor recorded a violation. In subsequent years, the MPCA would add more air testing sites, expand testing for different air pollutants, and record more air pollution violations.
Part II: Examining how air pollution problems continued in North Minneapolis after the community-based air monitors began recording more and more violations.