MPCA fines firm over waste hazards at Minneapolis plant

  • Article by: RANDY FURST , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 8, 2011 - 9:48 PM

For decades, Interplastic Corporation's northeast Minneapolis plant has been the subject of neighborhood complaints over its emissions.

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From left, community activists Betsy Mitchell, Barbara Sullivan, Lois Kelly and Dar Gerber stood near Interplastic Corp. It was fined $15,000 by the MPCA last month and ordered to make $263,800 in improvements.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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After years of neighborhood complaints over noxious odors and a federal study that supported their claims, a chemical plant in northeast Minneapolis modified its pollution controls and in 2006 raised the height of its smokestacks.

The changes have quelled the public stink over Interplastic Corp., but the company's practices within its walls have continued to run afoul of environmental and workplace safety laws.

Last month, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) fined Interplastic $15,000 and required it to make $263,800 in environmental upgrades. The penalties -- the second-largest leveled against a company by the MPCA this year -- follow three years of investigation by Hennepin County and MPCA inspectors who documented improper and unpermitted handling of hazardous waste.

The company was fined $9,700 last year after an explosion injured three workers.

The MPCA's actions came as no surprise to some who had raised concerns about Interplastic for years. "They've never been good neighbors," said Dar Garber, a nearby resident.

Interplastic and its chairman and CEO, James Wallenfelsz, declined interview requests.

The privately held firm, headquartered in St. Paul, was founded in 1959. It produces and distributes unsaturated polyester resins, vinyl ester resins, gel coats, and colorants for composites, used in everything from car and boat parts to bowling balls and surfboards.

It uses volatile, dangerous chemicals, and state and county inspectors have been frequent visitors to Interplastic's plant in an industrial zone at 2015 NE. Broadway. In the past two years, it has been fined more than $13,000 for workplace safety violations.

The larger fine followed an accident in June 2010 in which the cap blew off a 16,000-gallon tank containing an acid-based product, injuring an Interplastic employee and two contract workers. The Minnesota Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited the company for three violations in that flash explosion, including failure to advise contractors about flammable materials or hazardous conditions where they were using cutting and welding equipment.

Ivan Levy, a company vice president and general counsel, acknowledged at the time of the explosion that the facility "does not have a clean record ... [but] this plant is not among the high levels of concern" in the industry.

Prodded by neighbors, environmental regulators have raised concerns for decades.

In 1972, Interplastic was cited for not filing reports on their pollution emissions. In 1979, 1,000 gallons of chemicals were spilled onto NE. Broadway. The MPCA issued a $40,340 penalty in 2000 for mishandling hazardous waste and a $22,500 penalty in 2001 for more violations, including discharging processed wastewater without a permit.

Starting in the 1980s, Barbara Sullivan and other nearby residents banded together to protest odors coming from Interplastic. "There have been violations so many times," she said. "They've been caught so many times."

Betsy Mitchell, one of the activists, described the odor as a "sweet, sickly acrid smell" that would drive neighbors into their houses. The situation got so contentious that Interplastic once backed out of a planned visit from local politicians.

Dennis Cavenaugh, a nearby resident and former chairman of the Soo Line Railroad, supported the neighborhood effort to press regulators to get tough with Interplastic. "Interplastic probably sees itself as very responsible," he said. "But it seems to have a corporate culture of shoving its costs into the community. ... If you can push it into the air or have weak regulation, it increases your profit margin."

In 2005, federal public health investigators issued a report that confirmed neighbors' worries.

"Historically, there have been numerous complaints from the surrounding community about odors attributed to the Interplastic facility," the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry reported. "Health complaints included: breathing problems, allergic reactions, and eye, nose and throat irritation."

Of the chemicals found in the emissions, dicyclopentadiene was of the most concern, the agency said, noting symptoms from exposure including headache, dizziness, nausea and irritation of the eyes, nose and throat. It said the smokestacks should be higher to disperse the chemicals over a wider area. The MPCA said records show the firm raised them in 2006.

In 2008 and 2009, inspectors for the environmental protection division of Hennepin County uncovered violations that included drums of ignitable hazardous waste draining into a containment receptacle outside. It had rained during the night and the receptacle could have overflowed, inspctors said.

In 2009, the MPCA discovered that for the previous five years, the company had transported more than 250,000 pounds of hazardous waste from its Vadnais Heights plant to the Minneapolis facility without a permit. The Minneapolis plant also lacked permits to process waste or accept waste from other facilities.

These days, neighbors who led the fight against Interplastic's odors say the smells have been reduced.

Yet new housing has sprung up nearby. About six years ago, the old Cream of Wheat factory at Broadway and Stinson Boulevard was opened as CW Lofts, a condo development.

"Depending on wind conditions, there is usually a smell, sometimes a very strong smell," says Al Aksan, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Minnesota who has lived at CW Lofts since 2005. He said that if he'd known about the Interplastic odors, he would not have moved there.

Former City Council Member Walt Dziedzic became involved in efforts to curb the odors in the 1990s. He said the plant should have never been built in a city.

Kevin Reich, current First Ward council member, says he occasionally smells odors from Interplastic at his home in the Windom neighborhood, and says it's the result of a temporary breakdown of the plant's equipment.

Reich said he's heard complaints from residents of CW Lofts but thinks it's the result of locating condos in an industrial area. "It is not what I consider a best practice," he said.

Staff librarian John Wareham contributed to this report. Randy Furst • 612-673-4224

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