Northern Metal Case Study: The MPCA’s claims to have held the company ‘accountable’ don’t hold up to scrutiny

Third part of a three-part series

Part I and Part II:  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 and initial smokestack tests showed it was violating air quality standards for particle pollution. The MPCA’s solution was to update Northern Metal’s permit in 2012 to allow more air pollution. Independent air testing in 2016 showed air pollution problems were worse than expected, including lead pollution. Community members demanded state action. Still, Northern Metal was able to forestall MPCA’s enforcement action.

Part III: Northern Metal’s is caught doctoring records and faces no serious consequences. It’s eventually forced out of North Minneapolis, nearly a decade after the first air quality violations were reported. The MPCA’s response to Northern Metal is not an outlier. There are other examples where the agency sided with corporate interests over residents’ interests.

The old Northern Metal building in North Minneapolis.

We pick up the story with the 2017 settlement agreement between the MPCA and Northern Metal. The company agreed to shut down its Minneapolis operations by Aug. 1, 2019 and paid $2.5 million in fines and other costs.

Northern Metal’s neighbors weren’t happy about the MPCA’s decision to allow the metal shredder to continue operating for another 29 months.

MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine acknowledged residents’ concerns, according to an MPR story. But Stine defended the decision to allow continued operations, saying Northern Metal “has made changes, passed emissions testing and is complying with its permit.”

A year later, the story line returns to a predictable pattern.

  1. More air quality violations: “For the second time in less than a year, a state air monitor has recorded high levels of dangerous air pollutant near the Northern Metal Recycling shredder in north Minneapolis,” the Star Tribune reported May 3, 2018, citing MPCA data.
  2. The MPCA expresses concern: “We are very concerned about the impact … on people working and living near that industrial part in Minneapolis,” an MPCA staffer tells the Star Tribune.
  3. The MPCA can’t identify the problem: The MPCA “said it couldn’t pinpoint what’s causing the recent pollution spike other than that warmer weather might play a role,” the Star Tribune reported.

A last slap in the face

Neighbors gather on the Lowry Avenue Bridge to protest Northern Metal’s ongoing operations, 2019.

As Northern Metal’s Aug. 1, 2019 shut-down date approached, the company asked the MPCA for a two-month extension.

The MPCA said “no.”

Northern Metal again took the matter to court. In a last-minute ruling on Aug. 1, District Court Judge John Guthmann allowed the company to stay open while it negotiated with the MPCA, the Star Tribune reported.

Eventually, Northern Metal and the MPCA agreed the company would close its Minneapolis facility by Oct. 15 and move to Becker.

Just a week later, the state announced a Northern Metal whistle blower had come forward and alerted the MPCA that company officials were falsifying records, a MinnPost story said. The MPCA again pushed to have Northern Metal shut down.

“We don’t think it’s a victory that they got to move to another community.”

Resident and activist roxxanne O’brien

Christina Brown, an assistant state Attorney General, filed court documents stating “the evidence showed Northern Metals was ‘engaged in the systematic falsification of the pollution control equipment inspection records it is required to maintain under Minnesota law,’ as well as its emissions permit and its settlement,” MinnPost reported.

Northern Metal shot back that the MPCA had bullied the whistle blower into making those statements.

Neighborhood residents had created a coalition called Community Members for Environmental Justice so they could be represented in legal proceedings. Residents and activists Roxxanne O’Brien and Shalani Gupta were key coalition members. The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy served as counsel, O’Brien said.

After the whistle blower came forward, O’Brien was hearing from the Coalition lawyer that Northern Metal wanted to settle immediately. As she had in 2017, O’Brien opposed settling. She wanted to go to court for an evidentiary hearing, believing it would reveal more evidence of Northern Metal’s deceptions, as well as the MPCA’s poor oversight.

To her disappointment, the state agreed to settle.

According to a recent exchange with the MPCA, the agency said it “prioritized removing the shredder from North Minneapolis to ensure residents had healthy air quality. A protracted legal battle would have allowed shredding to continue indefinitely and with no guarantee that residents would get better air quality.”

The MPCA seemed to be deciding what was in the neighborhood’s best interests instead of engaging with those involved in Community Members for Environmental Justice, area residents who had been most active on the issue.

Large piles of scrap metal remain in Northern Metal’s former home in Minneapolis.

Northern Metal’s Minneapolis operation closed down on Sept. 23, 2019. The deal seemed favorable to Northern Metal, which only had to pay a $200,000 fine. Northern Metal had wrangled an additional seven weeks of operations, allowing it to make millions of dollars.

O’Brien said the state should have continued the legal fight, and perhaps shut down Northern Metal permanently.

“We don’t think it’s a victory that they got a chance to move into another community,” she said.

The MPCA claimed it held Northern Metal “accountable for false emissions reporting and violating the public’s trust.”

“These serious violations required a swift and proportional action,” Commissioner Laura Bishop said in a statement.

Yet even the settlement language was muted. It didn’t say that Northern Metal lied, cheated, or broke the law. It said Northern Metal altered the log book and failed to “maintain accurate records.”

The settlement agreement didn’t require Northern Meta to admit to violating its air quality permit, in spite of the fact there would be no reason for the company to alter its records if it was meeting air quality standards.

Air monitor next to Farview Park.

Just because the MPCA said it held Northern Metal accountable doesn’t make it true. The company falsified air quality records and continued to harm the surrounding neighborhoods while it continued to make profits.

George Floyd was arrested at gunpoint for allegedly trying to pass a fake $20. Here, a company faked records to the detriment of neighborhood residents’ health and somehow that’s not a crime?

Months after moving to its new home in Becker, Northern Metal had a scrap yard fire that raged for days, Feb. 18-22, 2020. The blaze covered an area 450 feet by 500 feet, and 10 to 15 feet high. The firefighting efforts filled storm water ponds with toxic runoff. It was ruled an accidental fire, though Northern Metal didn’t have fire breaks between its scrap piles, the MPCA said.

Even though Northern Metal did move out of Minneapolis, scrap piles remain. On April 21, Minneapolis fire fighters were called to the site to extinguish a blaze, believed to “have been the result of spontaneous combustion at the bottom of a large debris pile,” CBS reported.

The MPCA seems blind to its shortcomings and its failure to follow its own environmental justice framework.

Northern Metal is no outlier. It reflects a systemic problem that goes beyond any single MPCA permitting process.

The MPCA has allowed U.S. Steel and its Minntac mine to pollute wild rice waters with impunity for decades, ignoring the Fond du Lac Band’s environmental concerns. The Minnesota court system is slowly forcing U.S. Steel to meet water quality standards – and forcing the MPCA to do its job.

The MPCA approved PolyMet Mine permits, a project that would add to the already problematic mercury contamination in fish near the Fond du Lac Reservation. The MPCA tried to keep the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s critical comments about PolyMet out of the public record, a deeply disturbing action that resulted in no consequences to the agency. A court ruling this year has put PolyMet’s permits on hold.

Last year, 12 members of the MPCA’s 17-member Environmental Justice Advisory Group resigned over the agency’s approval of the Enbridge Line 3 tar sands pipeline. The project would have a disproportionate impact on Native Nations and peoples, they said.

In the resignation letter, members wrote that they “cannot continue to legitimize and provide cover for the MPCA’s war on black and brown people.”

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