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, thought it’s unclear whether the company saved money by polluting and paying fine rather than paying to fix the problem.

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Northern Metal Recycling: Another in the MPCA’s history of ignoring environmental concerns from communities of color

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.

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Half of Line 3’s ‘Independent Environmental Monitors’ have prior work for Enbridge

There are more than two dozen Independent Environmental Monitors spread out along the 337-mile Enbridge Line 3 pipeline corridor in northern Minnesota. They are supposed to be the eyes and ears for state regulators, making sure Enbridge is following all permits and rules and minimizing environmental damage.

Half of the 25 independent monitors hired to work on behalf of Minnesota state regulatory agencies have worked on Enbridge projects at some time in the past, according to monitor resumes obtained through a public information request.

It raises questions about how “independent” these monitors really are.

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Enbridge hides data from public on promised Line 3 job creation for Minnesotans

PUC did nothing to hold the company accountable for jobs pledge

Enbridge Energy sold Line 3 to Minnesota regulators saying it would be a jobs engine for Minnesota workers. It said Line 3 would create 8,600 jobs, and 6,500 or 75 percent would be local jobs.

When Enbridge released its Line 3 jobs reports for the 4th quarter of 2020, it was roundly criticized for failing to meet its target. It missed by a mile. Minnesotans held only 33 percent of Line 3 jobs, and worked only 28 percent of total hours.

Enbridge just released its Line 3 jobs report for the 1st quarter of 2021. It’s solution to meeting its local jobs promise seems to be to omit the data and hope nobody notices.

Making matters worse, state regulators doesn’t seem to care.

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Local media fails to cover Line 3’s harms; Michigan cites treaty rights to justify revoking Line 5’s easement

Local media has provided pretty thin coverage of Enbridge Line 3’s harms, including recent news about the human trafficking sting that included the arrests of two Line 3 workers.

The Star Tribune ran one story on the arrests; MPR hasn’t run even one, according to searches of their websites.

The Native American community and allies repeatedly raised concerns about the link between projects such as Line 3 and human trafficking. They warned state regulators about the risk and real-world harm to women and other relatives.

As we wrote yesterday, the PUC approved Line 3 without providing meaningful accountability for Enbridge to monitor and address human trafficking problems. The public has no way of knowing the extent of the problem beyond the recent arrests. No government agency is tracking information about Line 3’s harms, including sexual harassment and human trafficking.

If there’s no data, people are left believing that there isn’t a problem. The fact is, we know little because regulators aren’t looking and local media isn’t reporting on it.

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PUC doesn’t have to answer for Line 3-related human trafficking problems

Nor is it going to hold Enbridge accountable for them

It took me along time to get this through my head, but there’s no mechanism in place to hold the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) accountable for its poor decisions, or even explain them.

I wanted the PUC’s comment about recent reports of sexual harassment and violence towards women by Line 3 workers. The PUC was warned about these risks when it permitted Line 3. Was the PUC concerned about this news? Had the PUC been in contact with Enbridge or law enforcement about these issues? Does the PUC regret putting such lax conditions in the Line 3 permits?

These seem like basic questions, the kind any state agency would feel compelled to answer.

But the PUC isn’t a state agency, it’s a “quasi-judicial” body, more like a court.

Will Seuffert, the PUC’s executive secretary wrote: “[N]either I nor any staff member can speak for any of the Commissioners, and they speak through their written orders. The agency cannot provide any explanation beyond what is included in the written orders.”

So who holds the PUC accountable?

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MPCA won’t fine Enbridge for wetland damage from sunken equipment

Agency said ‘No outstanding impacts’ occurred

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) said it wouldn’t fine Enbridge for a Feb. 6 incident where a piece of heavy construction equipment got almost completely submerged into a sensitive wetland area near LaSalle Creek in Hubbard County. The operator was preparing the site for the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline trench.

Because this was in a permitted work space there was already an expectation of equipment/ground disturbance/temporary impacts (and restoration). The MPCA concluded that there was no violation and will not issue a fine or citation.”

MPCA email

As this blog wrote earlier, this problem seemed avoidable. Friends of the Headwaters had alerted both the MPCA and Enbridge about the unique groundwater upwelling near LaSalle Creek that kept water from freezing in the winter.

It seems odd for an agency whose job it is to protect the environment to dismiss the damage, treating it no differently than the expected damage from normal pipeline construction.

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Law enforcement’s double standard on Line 3 public safety

Indigenous women rally at the Governor’s mansion, tell Walz to shut down the pipeline

On Feb. 22, a few people were seen throwing a package into an Enbridge work area in Carlton County. (Later, it was described as electronic-style devices making audible noises.) It was deemed a bomb threat, but turned out to be a false alarm. Fingers were immediately pointed at water protectors. Law enforcement’s response created a backlash against the water protectors at Camp Migizi.

The response: Carlton County Sheriff Kelly Lake, along with other local officials, decided to evacuate the 40 homes within a half-mile radius of the device. This was a larger evacuation zone than needed for a truck packed with a half-ton of TNT. Lake also called in the FBI. “Emergency alert” texts were sent out about an “explosive hazard” reaching people as far away as Hibbing and Duluth..

On Feb. 24, two days later, news broke that a human trafficking sting led to the arrests of seven men, including two Line 3 workers. According to one of the men arrested, he learned about the website where he could meet young girls from rumors at work. (That website turned out to be the sting.) In a media release announcing the arrests, Itasca County Attorney Matti Adam said: “What this operation tells us is that there is demand to sexually exploit young people in Northern Minnesota.”

The response: So far, not one public official has pointed a finger at Enbridge and demanded a response. This much we know: There is a “demand to sexually exploit young people in Northern Minnesota.” Where’s the text alerts — or their equivalent — warning northern Minnesota families of this threat?

Which is more dangerous, a buzzing electronic-type device or a sexual predator?

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Court rulings on mining pollution highlight MPCA failings

Minnesotans value our state’s clean waters. As the Land of 10,000 Lakes, it’s core to our identity.

When European settlers started arriving here, the waters were 100 percent pristine. Now 200 years later, most of our lakes and streams are considered impaired to some degree, according the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA’s). Some 65 percent our 27,329 miles of streams are impaired by at least one factor, according to the MPCA’s 2020 report to Congress. Nearly 90 percent of our acreage of lakes are likewise impaired.

The MPCA is supposed to be the state’s leading environmental protection agency, the guardian of our precious clean water.

It is not. Turns out, that award goes to the Minnesota court system.

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