Northern Metal Recycling, the embattled company that moved its metal shredder from Minneapolis to Becker in 2019 after the state found it had reported false emissions records, has run afoul of north Minneapolis environmentalists again.

Northern Metals continues to store junk automobiles and other metal waste at its 2800 Pacific St. N. facility, on the banks of the Mississippi River. Last month, a large stockpile of debris spontaneously combusted.

About 50 people led by the North Side environmental group Community Members for Environmental Justice rallied in front of Northern Metals last week, demanding city and state regulators shut it down. Activists blame Northern Metals for contributing to the area's highest-in-the-state rate of asthma hospitalizations by releasing dangerous metal particulates into the air, according to the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.

Joining the group were state Reps. Fue Lee, Esther Agbaje and Sydney Jordan, City Council Member Jeremiah Ellison and Minneapolis mayoral candidates Sheila Nezhad and Kate Knuth.

"Some people feel like there's so many other urgent things going on here. … If I woke up and my kids couldn't drink any water or they couldn't breathe, like nothing else would matter to me," said environmental organizer Roxxanne O'Brien. "We are the first community to be impacted by some sort of environmental disaster … and the last ones to be invested in."

Protesters seized upon the fire incident report, which described a "large, approximately 50 foot tall, pile of plastic and insulation recycling waste fire."

But city inspections found that the pile was within the 20-foot legal limit, according to the city and Northern Metals' vice president of operations, Scott Helberg.

City spokeswoman Sarah McKenzie told the Star Tribune that the city cannot take legal action against Northern Metals when it has no outstanding code violations.

According to the inspection log on April 21, the day of the fire, inspector Fred Babekuhl confirmed that fire crews were able to move their rigs through adequately wide fire lanes, and that Northern Metal helped break up the flaming pile with a picker crane.

"Early on in the inspections of this pile, Northern Metals made a 20 foot steel pole with a flag at the top for a use of measurement and we also used the picker crane's arm which was also 20 feet in length as an addition measuring aid," Babekuhl wrote, concluding that the pile was shorter than both.

"Northern Metals should not be maintaining piles of combustible materials that have any risk of catching fire," responded Evan Mulholland, a lawyer with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.

"If you're planning the city, seeing that you need a place to take waste metal and convert it to useful metal — which is super important — why would you put it right on the Mississippi River, and within a quarter mile of where people live? "

In 2019, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Commissioner Laura Bishop admonished the company, saying, "Minnesota expects its corporate citizens to do the right thing and follow its permit requirements. Northern Metal Recycling broke the public's trust and showed a willful disregard toward its neighbors."

The recycler was ordered to immediately cease its north Minneapolis shredding operations and pay $200,000 in civil penalties.

Prosecutor Sean Cahill said the Hennepin County Attorney's Office did review the case for charges under a law against knowingly making false representations in environmental reports, but concluded they couldn't identify the individual responsible for the falsified records.

A 60-foot metal pile at Northern Metals' Becker facility caught fire in February 2020 and burned for days, filling the air with columns of black smoke and fumes that blanketed the area for miles. In an administrative order, the MPCA froze Northern Metals' Becker operations.

Northern Metals hasn't taken any more junk cars at the Minneapolis facility since then, said Helberg, who declined to discuss the company's long-term plans for the site.

Susan Du • 612-673-4028