State regulators said Wednesday they’re concerned about the levels of toxic metals measured last year by air monitors near a north Minneapolis scrap yard, and have received new information about its operations that could represent “potentially serious” permit violations.

Officials at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) said the monitors recorded lead levels 10 times higher than all but one other Minnesota location, which was near a lead battery recycler. The highest average measurement was just under the standard set by regulators. They said levels of chromium, cobalt and nickel also were measured at levels above health-based guidelines, although there aren’t standards for airborne concentrations.

Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges said Thursday she was outraged by the news and called for a strong state response.

Although there’s no immediate health hazard, the levels raise concerns about long-term exposure for workers nearby, said Cassie McMahon, an MPCA environmental health scientist. Hodges urged people living near the area, or anyone living in an older home, to get their children tested for lead.

The agency stopped short of attributing the elevated levels to the Northern Metal Recycling yard, which is bracketed by the two state air monitors, noting there are other potential sources in the area. Lead in the air typically doesn’t travel far because it is heavy, McMahon said, which minimizes potential impacts for neighbors beyond the industrial area.

The latest information represents another chapter in a saga stretching back to the late 1980s over whether to approve and how to regulate a shredding machine the company uses to pulverize scrap metal, including auto hulks, to increase the price it is paid for its scrap.

“I am outraged to learn of this air quality violation in North Minneapolis,” Hodges said in a written statement. “Make no mistake. This is an environmental justice issue impacting one of the most overburdened neighborhoods in our community. For too long, the health of our residents, including our children, has been determined by their Zip code. I urge the MPCA to act swiftly to confirm the source of the lead particulate emissions and take the strongest possible action, up to and including revoking permits and shutting down operations completely.”

The agency has summoned Northern Metal to a meeting Tuesday, according to Jack Perry, an attorney who represents the firm. He said the company hasn’t been given specifics.

MPCA Assistant Commissioner David Thornton said the agency recently learned that either the company didn’t submit accurate information when it was issued a state permit for its metal shredder or it changed operations or added new emission sources without telling regulators.

Thornton said the new information involved operations outside the shredder and its building. “We need to have a serious response to this,” he said, ranging from additional testing to revoking the shredder’s permit.

The company has maintained that it has installed the best available technology to control emissions from the shredder, which is encased inside a five-story building that has several systems to capture dust created by shredding.

That machine began shredding in 2009 after a 21-year battle that was fought at City Hall, the courts and the Legislature about whether it should even be installed, and what limits should be placed on its operation and emissions. The shredder quickly failed to meet environmental standards set in its initial permit.

In response, the MPCA relaxed the permit without further environmental studies sought by three legislators, some area residents and environmental advocates. The city also joined in seeking that environmental impact statement. Hodges said the city also asked MPCA to require a study of cumulative impacts and place a special emphasis on environmental justice.

But MPCA did agreed to add an air monitor, something requested by the city along with particulate limits, and it was installed across from the scrap yard’s north end. When that recorded violations of air particle limits, MPCA installed a second monitor on the south end of the yard.

The agency now has recorded violations of annual and daily limits for total air particles, plus readings over the daily standard for small particles, and heavy metal readings that measure above government guidelines for chronic inhalation.

The company agreed in a December court settlement with the state to have the shredder’s operations and pollutant controls evaluated by an outside consultant. In January, that consultant said the controls were “among the most extensive and detailed I have seen.” Perry said the company is waiting to see if the agency approves its plan for further testing of dust controls. That testing would cover only what is emitted by the shredder, but other metal processing operations at the scrap yard also create dust.

The Minnesota Department of Health also expressed concern over the findings. “While the results in this report do not indicate a short-term health risk, we are concerned about the overall impact on air quality in this area and the potential for harm over the long term, particularly for those who work in the immediate area,” said James Kelly, environmental health manager.

State Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, said the latest tests support her long fight against the machine, and said it stands as an impediment to redeveloping the upper Mississippi riverfront in the city.

Northern Metal has said it is in the early stages of looking for a new site for the shredder northwest of the Twin Cities metro area, but it plans to retain a scrap yard where the firm and its predecessors have operated since the 1950s.

 

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