A south Minneapolis iron foundry has been violating air emissions laws since at least 2018, according to federal pollution inspectors.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, which is responsible for enforcing the foundry's air permit, didn't take any action against the company during that time.

The state agency tested the air along the perimeter of Smith Foundry, an ironworks on E. 28th Street in the East Phillips neighborhood, in October 2022 and April 2023, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Both times, the state recorded high levels of particulate matter — a dangerous kind of pollution that can cause heart attacks, asthma and chronic health conditions.

It wasn't until May, when EPA investigators conducted a surprise inspection at the facility, that federal regulators made demands that the company comply with air pollution laws.

Residents near the foundry — who have often complained to the MPCA about fumes and smoke plumes — say they've been left wondering how the alleged violations weren't found earlier and why no action was taken until months after elevated levels of pollutants were first found.

"It's such a breach of trust," said Joe Vital, who lives in the East Phillips neighborhood. "The community has met for years with the MPCA asking them to inspect this facility. It's just regulatory neglect."

MPCA officials said in a statement Tuesday that they are still reviewing the EPA's findings.

"The MPCA is committed to scheduling a community meeting with the neighborhood as soon as possible," the statement read. "We are also working to increase air monitoring near Smith Foundry."

The EPA found several violations of the Clean Air Act at Smith Foundry during an unannounced inspection May 26, according to a copy of the inspection report provided by the EPA. The Sahan Journal was the first to report on the inspection last week.

During the inspection, the EPA pulled the company's last five years of emissions reports, which it submits annually to the MPCA. In each of those years the company reported data that showed it emitted particulate-matter pollution at rates that were nearly twice as high or more than twice as high as state limits allowed, according to the inspection.

It produced 12.44 pounds of the pollutant per hour in 2018, for example, when it was allowed to produce 5.66 pounds per hour, inspectors noted. Particulate matter contains microscopically small substances that can get deep into person's lungs and blood stream when inhaled.

Asked why it didn't detect the violations noted by EPA, the MPCA said it doesn't require the company to submit the data it would need to determine that.

"As part of its investigation, the EPA requested additional information from Smith beyond what is required to be submitted to the MPCA" to determine the foundry broke the state's rate limits, the MPCA told the Star Tribune.

The foundry, which has been at the site since 1923, makes iron castings. It has about 50 employees and was purchased by Zynik Capital in December 2022. The furnace melts an average of 20 tons of iron per day and recorded a total of 4,600 tons melted in 2022, according to the EPA.

Emissions reports kept by the MPCA show it has long been one of the biggest producers of lead pollution in the state — emitting about 200 pounds in 2021, by far the biggest source of lead emissions in Hennepin County.

The foundry is in a heavily polluted area of Minneapolis, next door to an asphalt plant and across the street from the former Roof Depot warehouse. It's a part of the city's Southside Green Zone, a group of industrially contaminated neighborhoods where the city wants to reduce pollution.

EPA inspectors said they found particulate matter in the air inside the facility, as well as escaping through "many" open doors and windows. They found cracks and holes in ductwork, and "observed that capture equipment was either absent, or failing to capture a significant portion" of the pollutant. One of the company's baghouses, a type of filter that controls air emissions, wasn't working, the inspection found.

The company failed to keep required inspection and maintenance records and it didn't notify the state when equipment failed or wasn't working properly, inspectors wrote.

"We're working with the EPA trying to get everything resolved," foundry controller Ron Steffens told the Star Tribune. "We've been doing some maintenance around the plant to get things corrected."

In a statement, the company said it replaced filters on its baghouses, welded cracks and replaced problem vents identified by inspectors. It pledged to meet "safe standards for our neighbors and union workers."

In an August letter to the company detailing the agency's findings, the EPA wrote that it could issue an administrative penalty order or pursue a civil or criminal complaint against the company.

An EPA spokeswoman declined to answer questions, or to confirm whether any fixes had been made since the May inspection.

"EPA cannot discuss open enforcement matters," she said.

The MPCA said it conducted an unannounced inspection of its own on Monday and found all equipment at the foundry was working.

The foundry has continued to operate since the inspection. Residents who live next to the plant said they are frustrated with the lack of information from both the state and the EPA.

"Our trust is just broken," Vital said. "People are scared and frustrated and angry and we are not very surprised, either, and that's sad."

Evan Mulholland, a lawyer with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, said the state should have investigated the site long ago.

"How could it take so long to discover that devices were malfunctioning and records weren't being kept?" Mulholland said. "This is not in the middle of nowhere — there's a day care a quarter-mile away."

Vital said neighbors plan to hold a community meeting outside the foundry Friday.