Northern Metal Case Study: MPCA flopped its response to repeat air quality violations in North Minneapolis

Second part of a three-part series

Part I: The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) permitted a giant metal shredder and recycling operation in North Minneapolis in a neighborhood where residents already faced high asthma rates. Northern Metal Recycling began operating in 2009. Initial smokestack tests showed it was violating air quality standards for particle pollution. The MPCA’s solution was to update the permit in 2012 allowing Northern Metal to emit more pollution. When the MPCA installed air quality monitors in the community in 2013-2014, they started recording more air quality violations.

Part II: North Minneapolis’ air quality problems continued. Northern Metal disputed it was the source of the problem. In 2015 an independent consultant conducted air quality tests, expanding the analysis to include other pollutants. It showed air pollution problems were worse than previously understood. Community members demanded state action. Still, Northern Metal was able to forestall enforcement action. It did pay a fine, though it’s unclear whether the company saved money by polluting and paying fine rather than paying to fix the problem.

Northern Metal Recycling (red dot on map) operated south of the Lowry Avenue Bridge and west of the Mississippi in the Hawthorne Neighborhood. (GoogleMaps)

We pick up the story in 2015, six years after Northern Metal began operations. That year, the MPCA launched its environmental justice framework. The agency made a commitment to the fair treatment of all people regardless of race or income, and their meaningful involvement in “the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws …”

Northern Metal operated in the Hawthorne neighborhood, where residents are disproportionately poor and Black, Indigenous, and people of color. The environmental justice initiative should have been good news for residents wanting a stronger voice and oversight of Northern Metal.

They would be disappointed.

The MPCA said it “conducted numerous scheduled, unscheduled and unannounced inspections” of Northern Metal.

Those inspections didn’t stop pollution problems.

By March, 2015, an air quality monitor near Northern Metal recorded high levels of particle pollution for the fourth time in five months, the Star Tribune reported. (Two readings exceeding the standard over a year is a permit violation.)

Northern Metal wrote the MPCA to complain it was being unfairly targeted for the neighborhood’s poor air quality.

Northern Metal closed its Minneapolis operations in 2019 and moved to Becker.

Northern Metal took the issue to court and got a favorable ruling. Ramsey County District Judge John Guthmann ordered the MPCA to shut down two air monitors near Northern Metal or explain the need for them.

It seems odd that a judge would tell the MPCA where it could and could not have air monitors.

To its credit, the MPCA responded it had no intention of removing the monitors.

By the end of August, 2015 air monitors near Northern Metal recorded four additional instances “where either the human health standard or the state environmental standard were exceeded for the total number of microscopic particles in the air,” the Star Tribune reported.

By late 2015, enforcement conversation changed significantly. Northern Metal proposed moving out of Minneapolis in three years if the MPCA would “back off regulations.”

The MPCA said it wouldn’t back off regulations. Kathleen Winters, an MPCA attorney, said a visual inspection of Northern Metal suggested the company was polluting more than permitted, the Star Tribune reported.

“We can’t let people breathe that air,” Winters said.

In spite of Winters’ conviction, area residents did keep breathing “that air” for nearly four years.

“If Northern Metal were in Linden Hills, it would have been shut down quickly.”

resident and activist Roxxanne O’brien

The MPCA and Northern Metal agreed to have an independent consultant evaluate the metal shredder’s pollution controls and exhaust systems. In 2016, that investigation identified a new problem: air-borne lead pollution.

“Monitors recorded lead levels 10 times higher than all but one other Minnesota location, which was near a lead battery recycler,” the Star Tribune reported.

The MPCA issued a statement saying the new data also measured other heavy metals — chromium, cobalt and nickel – with levels above state and federal guidelines.

Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges said she was outraged “and called for a strong state response,” the Star Tribune reported.

The MPCA stopped short of blaming the elevated pollution levels to Northern Metal, “noting there are other potential sources in the area.”

Still, on May 5, 2016, the MPCA issued a public notice to revoke Northern Metal’s permits.

The agency said Northern Metal had misrepresented and omitted key facts. The existing permit didn’t accurately reflect the facility’s operations, and “the permit cannot be said to be protective of human health and the environment,” the MPCA said.

Northern Metal made changes to its shredder equipment and expanded processing operations without seeking a permit update, the agency said. Further, the company failed to provide complete emissions information when requested – another permit violation.

Piles of scrap metal remain in the Northern Metal’s old Minneapolis facility.

In 2012, Northern Metal had committed to enclose its metal shredder and cleaning system. Yet in 2016 the MPCA said it had evidence “that the shredder and cleaning system do not operate in a total enclosure and never did.”

(Asked recently how the agency could have missed this problem for years, the MPCA said: “Northern Metals did enclose its shredder but the agency determined the building did not qualify as an enclosure after air leaks were found.”)

Surely, this was the end of the line for Northern Metal.

Again, the issue went to court. In late August, 2016, Judge Guthmann ordered Northern Metal to shut down until the MPCA either issued a modified permit or the company proved it was not the source of the neighborhood’s air quality problems.

At the same time, Guthmann gave Northern Metal a three-week window to keep operating. He ordered the company and the MPCA to come to an agreement.

Northern Metal continued to operate the shredder beyond the three-week window, sparking neighborhood protests.

“If Northern Metal was in Linden Hills, it would have been shut down quickly,” neighborhood activist Roxxanne O’Brien told the Twin Cities Daily Planet. “But apparently, we’re expendable up here.”

At the close of 2016, Hawthorne resident Ariah Fine circulated an online petition demanding the MPCA shut down Northern Metal. (It would get 1,676 signatures.)

Discussions between Northern Metal and the MPCA dragged on. In March 2017 — six months after Guthmann’s order — the two sides reached a deal.

Other sources of neighborhood air pollution. Source: MPCA.

Northern Metal agreed to pay $2.5 million in fines and other costs to resolve the issue. It also agreed to move out of Minneapolis by August, 2019.

The agency and Northern Metal were happy with the agreement. O’Brien and other area residents were not.

The MPCA touted the settlement as one of the largest it ever negotiated. Commissioner John Linc Stine seemed overly deferential to Northern Metal. 

“This settlement is a welcome start to addressing a problem for residents in north Minneapolis who are already overburdened with health and pollution issues,” he said. “The company recognized the serious nature of its violations, and they’ve chosen to take the right steps.”

Calling the settlement a “welcome start” is tone deaf. It’s taking a victory lap when the agency had failed to address the pollution problem for years.

Stine’s claim that Northern Metal recognized the “seriousness nature of its violations” is contradicted by the company’s own statement. Northern Metal maintained that it complied with its permit terms and obeyed state and federal laws, the Star Tribune reported.

O’Brien opposed the settlement. She didn’t care about the money, she said. She wanted Northern Metal shut down immediately. The agreement allowed Northern Metal to keep operating — and polluting the neighborhood — for another 29 months.

“It was almost like they had no power,” O’Brien said of the MPCA. “They weren’t in the business of stopping permits or saying ‘no.’” 

“We can’t let people breathe that air.”

MPCA attorney Kathleen Winters

Only a quarter of Northern Metal’s $2.5 million payment went to the neighborhood. (O’Brien said she had to push to get that much.)

Here’s how the money got divvied up.

  • $1 million civil penalty to the state general fund, as required by law to support environmental work.
  • $960,000 to the MPCA: $500,000 for legal fees, $160,000 for past air monitoring costs, and $300,000 for future air monitoring costs.
  • $600,000 to Minneapolis. It paid for health projects, such as testing neighborhood children for lead exposure and for housing inspections to reduce asthma triggers.

It’s likely Northern Metal would have had to pay more than $2.5 million to fix its pollution problems. It’s hard to know for sure because the MPCA doesn’t ask that question. It doesn’t consider the costs of fixing pollution problems when making enforcement decisions, the agency said.

Healing Minnesota Stories emailed the MPCA to ask whether it had concerns about sending the message to other companies that they can save money by violating pollution rules and pay the fines instead.

The MPCA did not answer the question.

Healing Minnesota Stories emailed the MPCA to ask how its Environmental Justice Framework affected the agency’s response to Northern Metal.

It responded: “MPCA proactively kept community members informed about the compliance and enforcement work, and along with the City of Minneapolis, engaging with residents to direct settlement money for community benefit.  We also increased air monitoring in the area, which continues today.”

That falls short of the commitment the agency made to the fair treatment of all people regardless of race or income, and their meaningful involvement in “the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws.”

Part III: Northern Metal finally gets shut down, thanks to a whistle blower. The Northern Metal case study fits into the larger pattern, where the MPCA puts corporate interests ahead of residents’ interests.

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