BECKER, MINN. – As firefighters gained control of an intense and stubborn blaze at a local automobile recycling plant Thursday, the community’s attention turned to the particles and possible toxins released from hundreds of charred and smoldering vehicles.
After more than two days of dark, smoky skies, Becker police issued a statement Thursday morning saying that crews had finally contained the fire at Northern Metal Recycling after making a fire break to separate debris piles and allow part of a giant stack of junked and crushed vehicles to burn and die out.
“The fire break is holding its place and crews continue to monitor the areas that are still burning,” Police Chief Brent Baloun said. What remained visible late Thursday was “a considerable amount of steam coming from the debris piles” as they burned off.
More than 100 fire departments aided local crews around the clock since the fire erupted early Tuesday, said Tom Wark, Becker’s assistant fire chief and incident commander.
As crews tamped down the flames, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency began sampling air quality in the area. Initial findings are expected Friday afternoon, state officials said. Less extensive tests conducted Thursday night by the Minnesota Hazardous Materials Emergency Response Team found “nothing of immediate concern,” Becker police said in a news release. The cause of the fire remains unknown.
Meantime, Becker residents lit up a community forum on Facebook to express concerns about smoke exposure while also thanking firefighters and other emergency personnel who have fought the blaze since it was reported by a passerby at 2:25 a.m. Tuesday. No buildings on the site were damaged and no one has been injured.
Becker Public Schools were closed Thursday because of concerns over the heavy smoke but were to reopen Friday.
Becker Mayor Tracy Bertram posted a note in the Facebook forum saying she shares residents’ concerns about possible toxic releases. She said third-party consultants tested air from the smoke plume, adding that “we are continually monitoring weather conditions and working with emergency managers to make sure our citizens are immediately notified if there would be any concerns related to the air quality.”
James Kelly, an environmental health expert with the Minnesota Department of Health, said Thursday that some of the burning materials could be considered “problematic or hazardous” and advised people to steer clear of the plume and avoid touching fallen ash or tracking it indoors, particularly if they have asthma or lung disease. Kelly said it’s not known what is in the ash but added that it will be tested.
City Administrator Greg Pruszinske issued a statement Thursday saying that no water runoff from the firefighting effort entered off-site storm sewers, the Mississippi River or the municipal water supply.
The site’s drainage ponds captured the water, which will be tested to determine whether the ponds will need to be treated.
Pruszinske said testing on pond sediment will occur after the spring thaw.
Some in this city of 4,800 residents 45 miles northwest of Minneapolis had expressed concerns about the pollution risks of Northern Metal’s shredding operation even before the company applied for a permit to operate here.
Bertram said Thursday that she has no regrets about supporting the company’s move from north Minneapolis to her city last fall. Northern Metal has yet to begin operating.
“It’s state of the art, probably the best one in the United States,” she said of the facility, noting that the shredding will be done indoors with air filters. “It could happen to any business.”
The MPCA ordered the firm to shut its Minneapolis facility after finding high levels of air pollutants in the neighborhood that have been linked to health problems. The company, which ceased operation in Minneapolis in September, was fined $200,000 after it admitted to altering and inaccurately recording pollution readings.
In spring 2018, five people sent letters to the MPCA addressing a draft of the company’s air permit for Becker. The letters outlined many issues, from the noise of hundreds of trucks rumbling by to whether there would be adequate protection to prevent contaminants from leaching into groundwater. The company’s record of air quality compliance problems was a recurring theme.
“I appreciate their claims that Becker represents a new day for them, but I am not confident that they will thoroughly self-regulate, and I want to feel assured that the state will provide the proper level of oversight and enforcement,” Becker homeowner Scott Gifford said at the time.
Carolyn Fowler wondered whether it was wise to locate the plant so close to the Mississippi and Elk rivers, both of which are impaired and could be affected by pollutants from the site.
In its official response, the MPCA, which ultimately approved the permit, said it gives “extra scrutiny to facilities with a history of noncompliance.”
At a special meeting with the Becker City Council in March 2017, Scott Helberg, chief operating officer of Northern Metal, acknowledged that the company had gone through some “bumpy times” with regulators over its Minneapolis shredder. He said the company agreed to move the facility and liked the Becker location because of its rail and highway access and proximity to a landfill.
Helberg could not be reached for comment Thursday. But in 2017, he explained how a metal recycling facility works:
When vehicles are decommissioned, they are stripped of all hazardous materials, such as mercury switches and batteries. They then go on a rack that seals tight to the gas tank and punctures it. Any gasoline, oil, transmission fluid, antifreeze and grease is drained and recycled.
The auto is dry when it’s pulled off the rack and transported to the shredder site, where inspectors make sure no hazardous or explosive items remain before sending it through the fully enclosed hammer mill.
“It takes 15 to 30 seconds to grind a full-size auto into the size of your fist,” Helberg said.
The Health Department’s Kelly said local authorities reported that a majority of the vehicles that caught fire already had most of their fluids and hazardous materials removed.
Frank Kohlasch, the MPCA’s air quality program manager, said Thursday that critics of Northern Metal were concerned with the shredder operations, but no one anticipated a fire like this week’s. “I don’t think a large fire like this could be easily foreseen,” he said.
The MPCA’s Kohlasch said he’s not worried about the company altering air quality reports, as it admitted to doing in Minneapolis. That’s because the reports are being done by independent consultants, he said, and state officials have access to the labs and data and have the ability to verify it.