Northern Metal Recycling operated in North Minneapolis from 2009-2019 and was cited numerous times for air quality violations before finally being forced out of town to a new facility in Becker. The company no longer processes scrap metal in Minneapolis, but it continues to use the yard to collect scrap metal.
Neighbors say — again– they’ve had enough.
Some 50-60 people gathered outside the plant at 2800 Pacific Ave. N. on Tuesday to symbolically issue a restraining order and demand government leaders close the remaining operations permanently.
“Northern Metal has never been kind to us,” said Roxxanne O’Brien, a member of Community Members for Environmental Justice (CMEJ) and event organizer. “We must start holding people accountable.”
Click here to sign CMEJ’s petition to shut down Northern Metal’s Minneapolis operation.
Several speakers criticized the April 21 fire that broke out in the scrap year. Sixteen Minneapolis Fire Department units and 40 personnel responded to the blaze, according to the Minneapolis Fire Department’s incident report.
The piles of scrap in the Northern Metal yard aren’t all metal, but also include combustible materials.
Minneapolis residents downwind from the fire were advised to close their windows due to the smoke and uncertainty about the airborne hazardous materials it might carry.
City officials ruled the fire “accidental.”
O’Brien said Northern Metal failed to follow state fire codes, which say outdoor piles of combustible materials are not to exceed 20 feet tall.
According to the fire department’s incident report: “This was an accidental, large, approximately 50 foot tall, pile of plastic and insulation recycling waste fire.”
“What’s going on here with our government?” O’Brien asked the crowd.
The city told CMEJ’s attorney that fire inspectors have done at least 18 inspections of Northern Metal to make sure it complies with code. Since February, 2020 it has met code requirements, the city says.
According to CMEJ’s petition, the April 21st fire happened one week after an inspection. “If Northern Metals can pass an inspection just before a fire occurs, that facility is fundamentally unsafe to the community,” it said.
On Thursday, two days after the rally, the city released information saying the initial fire incident report was inaccurate. It has been amended to say the pile was only 20 feet high, within code.
That’s a difference of 30 feet, or a 60 percent drop.
“There is a cover up happening right in front of us,” O’Brien said in an email exchange with Healing Minnesota Stories today. “The government and city are part of the cover up to hide the Environmental Racism taking place in a Black community.”
A city spokesperson explained that the initial 50-foot estimate was eyeballed. A fire department inspector who was at the fire scene would later ask to correct the report based on his observations, noting there was a 20-foot tall pole with a flag on it to mark the maximum pile height to use as a gauge.
I don’t know if the pile was 20 feet tall of 50 feet tall. I do know the city did a poor job of communicating with neighborhood leaders about this major revision of the incident report. After suffering a decade of inaction around Northern Metal’s air pollution, neighbors have no reason to trust government regulators who failed to protect their interests.
Just putting out a statement doesn’t cut it. At a minimum, city leaders should have asked for a meeting with neighbors to explain the discrepancy and hear their complaints.
Several politicians attended and spoke at the Tuesday rally, including Minneapolis City Councilmember Jeremiah Ellison and state Rep. Fua Lee.
Iola Kostrzewski, a candidate for Minnetonka City Council, also attended. “We don’t have this in Minnetonka or Wayzata,” she said of Northern Metal. “We need the wealthier communities in Minnesota to say something and show up. They [regulators] will not listen to the voices of North Minneapolis.”
Daniele Tietjen a CMEJ member, noted the irony that those at the rally were standing in the middle of a city Green Zone.
According to the city’s website:
A Green Zone is a place-based policy initiative aimed at improving health and supporting economic development using environmentally conscious efforts in communities that face the cumulative effects of environmental pollution, as well as social, political and economic vulnerability.
CMEJ member Preston Dorsett said at the rally: “We are fighting for our lives. They are fighting for their profits.”
CMEJ has issued a set of demands to city, county, and state officials. They include:
- City must begin process for applying nuisance and eviction laws on Northern Metals (similar to how landlords break leases with nuisance code violators in housing.)
- Study what it would take use eminent domain to purchase Northern Metals and other problematic industrial land that is rented out to bad actors.
- Change statutory language to ensure fines from Minnesota Pollution Control Agency enforcement actions go into an Environmental Justice Fund (not just the general fund) so money will be invested back into the community where the harm occurred.
Click on the link above for the full list.
Mike Forcia attended the rally representing the American Indian Movement. Northern Metal is one of many connected environmental justice issues, he said.
“What I think we should do — once demands are not met — is to surround the place and not let the trucks in, said Forcia, who led efforts to pull down the Columbus statue on the state Capitol Mall. “We are in the time of change. We can’t wait another 10-15 years.”
CMEJ members want the city to declare Northern Metal as a nuisance property. The city’s code of ordinances explains the process:
When the city council determines and reports to the commissioner of health, or the commissioner of health on the commissioner’s own motion finds, that there exists on any privately owned land or premises any accumulation of unhealthy and unwholesome substances, the commissioner shall cause an investigation to be made. Upon such investigation, the commissioner may make an order determining that the presence of such accumulation of unhealthy and unwholesome substances on such land or premises constitutes a public nuisance.Minneapolis Code of Ordinances 227.90
For more on the history of Northern Metal in Minneapolis, and to understand the neighborhood’s frustration, see:
- Northern Metal Recycling: Another in the MPCA’s history of ignoring environmental concerns from communities of color
- Northern Metal Case Study: MPCA flopped its response to repeat air quality violations in North Minneapolis
- Northern Metal Case Study: The MPCA’s claims to have held the company ‘accountable’ don’t hold up to scrutiny