Minnesota's top pollution authority is casting doubt on the accuracy of an EPA report that found years of Clean Air Act violations at an iron foundry in South Minneapolis.

Katrina Kessler, commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, said in an interview Monday that the state has no evidence Smith Foundry sent elevated levels of lung-damaging fine particulate matter into the neighborhood.

"The data that we have ... show that there is not a violation of the permit, there is not an exceedance of the air standards in that neighborhood," Kessler said. "We are certainly working with the EPA to understand the data that they are using to come to that conclusion."

The revelations from the EPA's inspection, first reported by the Sahan Journal, sparked a wave of anger in East Phillips, a neighborhood that has a history of pollution and where the foundry has made iron castings on E. 28th Street for a century.

In a surprise visit to Smith in late May, the EPA said it found visible particulates inside, building up on tables and escaping through open doors and windows. Inspectors recorded cracked, broken and rusted ductwork and a malfunctioning air filter. The agency later determined that Smith had been emitting fine particulates at rates nearly or more than double what was allowed each year since 2018. Particulate matter is a dangerous kind of pollution that can cause heart attacks, asthma and chronic health conditions.

State Rep. Aisha Gomez, DFL-Minneapolis, who represents some neighborhoods near the foundry, said she doesn't understand how the MPCA missed longstanding and seemingly obvious violations in a facility that, by state law, should receive extra scrutiny.

"This is a disappointment and it's an embarrassment and it's an insult," Gomez said. "This is an indication that they're asleep on the job. They owe our communities an explanation about why it is that it took an EPA surprise inspection to come and do the job that we thought they were doing all along."

But MPCA officials insisted they could not reproduce the calculations that EPA used to determine Smith broke emission rate limits and are trying to understand how the EPA reached its conclusions. Frank Kohlasch, MPCA assistant commissioner for air and climate policy, said it's possible the feds are mixing up emissions numbers that represent part of the facility and all of the facility.

In an email, EPA Region 5 spokeswoman Macy Pressley wrote that the agency "has no reason to doubt" the calculations it made. "Nonetheless, EPA will continue to talk with MPCA and Smith Foundry to understand their positions."

Kessler said the agency takes neighborhood concerns seriously, and is committed to holding companies accountable for emissions.

Under pressure from the state, an asphalt company next to the foundry has agreed to shut down by 2025. MPCA also planned a neighborhood meeting to discuss the situation at Smith, to be held at 5:30 p.m. Nov. 27 at the Phillips Community Center at 2323 11th Av. S.

Worried neighbors

EPA's assertion that Smith caused pollution was not a surprise to residents who have long complained of acrid, foul air.

"I guess it's some vindication, finally, after all the years of going to the city and going to the state," said Steve Sandberg, a resident and board member of the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute.

Foundry controller Ron Steffens previously told the Star Tribune that the company was making repairs and working with the EPA. In a later statement, the company said it would meet "safe standards for our neighbors and union workers."

The neighborhood is in a part of the city designated by lawmakers in 2008 as a polluted zone requiring special regulatory attention. State Department of Health records show that children living in the foundry's zip code have long had higher than normal asthma rates, and are hospitalized and taken to emergency rooms for asthma at about twice the rate as the seven-county metro area's.

Some who recently complained about industrial air pollution were told there was nothing to worry about.

In October, strong smells wafted across the street to Circulo de Amigos Child Care Center, a day care and preschool where children stay outside in warmer months. Tania Rivera Perez, the preschool's program manager, said she directed concerned parents to make reports to the city and MPCA.

Allison Lind is one of the parents who said she complained to the MPCA. She got a call back in mid-October and was told nothing had changed at Smith — the company was complying with the law.

The news of the EPA's visit broke about two weeks later. Lind, a pediatric nurse practitioner who is pursuing a doctorate in epidemiology, wondered if she was wrong to send her son to his day care. Eli, 2, has breathing problems, and uses an inhaler every day.

"I knew [Smith] was there," Lind said. "But I also knew we have things like the Clean Air Act, right, that provide some sort of protection."

As time passed, though, Lind's anger has become focused elsewhere: the MPCA.

A new permit

While there's disagreement between the MPCA and EPA on whether the foundry broke emissions limits, one fact is clear — Smith has had the same air pollution permit since 1992.

Karen Clark, a community organizer and former state representative, co-authored the 2008 law that required the state to consider past and current pollution in East Phillips when writing permits, effectively making limits much stricter. A similar concept was expanded to cover many more areas of the state this year.

In all that time, Smith "was never held to account" under the 2008 law, Clark said.

Kohlasch said the MPCA decided to update Smith's air permit in 2016, and was working on the required modeling. The MPCA took short-term air quality readings around Smith as a part of that effort in October 2022 and April 2023 — data that the EPA included in its list of violations.

Kohlasch said this data was not robust enough for the state to use for enforcement. He also suggested that in one case, a drone with a sensor could have stirred up dust on the ground.

Pressley responded in an email that the EPA used these particular readings to show that Smith was letting pollution escape when it could be avoided, not that it was breaking specific standards for outdoor air.

Kessler said Smith's old permit never had an expiration date, but its new permit will expire every five years, and require the company to meet with the community annually. She did not know when the new permit would be finalized.

Addressing anger

While recent frustration in East Phillips has focused on Smith, many there acknowledge that foul smells could stem from Bituminous Roadways, a supplier of asphalt to Minneapolis.

EPA also inspected that site this spring, and required the company to run several tests, according to Todd Smedshammer, a production manager there. Pressley, the EPA spokeswoman, wrote that the agency is still reviewing information it collected.

Kessler said MPCA has now come to an agreement with Bituminous, which will close its East Phillips location in 2025. Smedshammer confirmed the company would leave in a few years, and said four employees work at the plant.

Still, many in East Phillips want the foundry to close. Members of the diverse, working-class neighborhood held a rally outside of Smith recently, their patience having run out.

"Shut it down," Sandberg said then. "They've had all these years ... of someday fixing something."