As cremation rate rises, critics and backers debate potential for such toxic emissions as mercury.
Along with wastewater plants, halfway houses and homeless shelters, Minnesotans apparently have added crematories to the list of things that have neighbors howling "not in my back yard."
But public outcry over plans to build crematories in at least two metro-area cities has raised the question of whether they're the source of toxic emissions -- or whether opponents are exaggerating the risk.
Last week, a plan to build a crematory in North St. Paul was pulled off the table after drawing complaints. And last month, residents in Jordan filed the second of two lawsuits to stop a proposed crematory from starting operations across the street from a day-care center downtown.
"There were concerns about emissions expressed by many," North St. Paul City Council Member Jan Walczak said recently. "This issue is a little hotter than most."
It only figures to grow hotter as cremations increase in popularity. Their number has been rising in Minnesota for 25 years running -- to more than 17,000, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. Nearly half of the deaths in the state result in cremation.
The concern among opponents is that mercury in dental fillings and other metals in bodies will lead to toxic emissions and contamination of air and water.
"The things you cannot see are very toxic," said Tia Severino of the Community Awareness Network in Georgia, who has been working to block crematories nationwide, including Jordan's. "Jordan is one we are involved in because of the way the city is pushing people around."
The issue has divided the tiny community, mirroring the growing number of people around the country questioning the safety of such establishments, which burn bodies at 1,800 degrees and then use filters to trap the emissions.
Adding fuel to the debate: The state Department of Health reversed course on the Jordan crematory, deciding Jan. 6 that the operation would need an environmental assessment before starting up.
That was in sharp contrast to the department's decision last fall to allow the crematory to open without environmental assessment, which led to the filing of a suit in October.
The agency said it had received "new information recently" that made the department "reconsider its decision," according to a letter to the state Environmental Quality Board by a worker at the state Mortuary Science section.
"MDH has received and continues to receive additional information about the situation that we feel needs to be reviewed," said department spokesman Doug Schultz.
Schultz did not say what the additional information was or how it might affect the Jordan project or any of the state's 50 existing crematories.
Anti-crematory activist Severino, who helped block a crematory from going into her town near Atlanta, says her group has provided the state and others with new research indicating that emissions from crematories are unsafe, especially the mercury.
But, as of now, the country has more than 2,000 crematories and the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not ruled that their emissions are above danger levels.
"I believe that will be changing soon," Severino said. "We do see it as a [local] problem and a national problem."
The industry disputes opponents' claims. John Ross, executive director of the Cremation Association of North America, said the country's roughly 2,000 crematories are "heavily regulated" and that the EPA has not found the emissions to be dangerous, especially given the modern equipment that new crematories would be using.
He said about 1 million cremations are done each year in the United States and that the number is growing.
"There is not an emissions issue at all," Ross said. "The measurements of mercury emissions by the EPA indicate that it is a very minimal amount."
The dental fillings of the deceased are the source of the majority of mercury emissions from crematories. In Minnesota, the first rejection of a crematory happened in Roseville in 2001, according to the Health Department.
The mortuary sued the city but in 2004, a Ramsey County judge ruled in the city's favor, without weighing in on the environmental issues raised.
From a regulatory standpoint, the issue is murky. There aren't any state or national requirements for environmental review for crematories. A 2005 EPA report found that there were no known standards on crematorium emissions in North America and noted the need for further study about emissions from such facilities.
In Jordan, Shari Schmit, a pregnant mother of three, is one of those concerned.
"It's basically in my back yard, across the street," Schmit said recently. "We want to know if it is safe or not."
A number of people plan to protest outside City Hall on Tuesday before the City Council meets. The meeting will be a showdown between the city's mayor, who opposes the project, and the City Council, which appears set to strip him of his powers to appoint members to the city's planning commission. It's part of the fallout from the debate over the Ballard-Sunder crematory, which already has been approved by the City Council but could yet be derailed by the lawsuits brought by citizens.
Calls for comment from Mark Ballard, one of the owners of the funeral home, were not returned.
Jordan Mayor Pete Ewals, who opposed the project, said he thought the council majority acted too quickly and without sufficient information about the safety of emissions.
"I was arguing that we should take some time," the mayor said. "They felt like they had all the facts."
Heron Marquez • 952-707-9994