North Minneapolis residents are breathing easier for the first time in a decade after a metal shredder linked to years of air pollution ceased operation last week.
Scrap metal and car parts are still piled high at the Northern Metal Recycling facility in north Minneapolis, where the company is allowed to run a junkyard. But the company shut down its shredder Monday as part of a legal settlement in which it also admitted altering and improperly recording the performance of its pollution filters.
While neighbors cheered the end of their long struggle to close down the shredder, they questioned whether the company will face any more consequences for its long record of pollution violations. Residents and at least two lawmakers support a criminal investigation.
Channy Leaneagh, a north Minneapolis resident, said her daughter spent two weeks at home with asthma problems because of dirty air. She said it’s been like this for the past five years, making it “treacherous” to walk through heavy pollutants to find green space where her two kids can play.
“It’s been really frustrating for the community, because people that live around here know the scent of shredded metal,” said Leaneagh, the lead singer of the popular band Poliça. “Anyone that lives with it on a daily basis knows it’s a heavy, putrid smell.”
After years of pollution violations and neighborhood pressure, Northern Metal was slated to close the shredder by Aug. 1. A Ramsey County judge gave the company a reprieve while it finished its new facility in Becker, Minn.
Altered pollution records
Then a whistleblower who worked for Northern Metal came forward in August and revealed the altered pollution records. With last week’s settlement, the company agreed to additional monitors and reports for its pollution control equipment when it opens in Becker. The company must also pay $200,000 to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
In a statement, Scott Helberg, chief operating officer of Northern Metal, said the Becker facility will employ 85 people and “set the benchmark for sustainability and environmental protection for the recycling industry in the state and the nation.” The company declined to comment on Minneapolis residents’ criticisms.
The facility’s shredding ending is a victory for community members who rallied for years with petitions, door-knocking and demanding accountability from Northern Metal and public officials. But it’s also about marginalized communities forcing businesses and lawmakers to reckon with the intersections of racism and environmental problems, said Roxxanne O’Brien, a community organizer with the Environmental Justice Coordinating Council who lives in north Minneapolis.
She said Northern Metal was “definitely another eye-opener” about how companies use loopholes to avoid accountability.
“That has to do with how a lot of corporations tell the story, like trying to sell us jobs,” O’Brien said. “Fresh air should come first. You can’t work a job if you don’t have fresh air.”
State Sens. Kari Dziedzic and Bobby Joe Champion, DFLers who represent northeast and north Minneapolis, are encouraging local and federal authorities to continue investigating. They said in a statement that the neighborhoods “deserve to have their voices heard and compensation for damages.”
Dziedzic said in an interview they were expecting to meet with Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office to learn if they would forward information to the Hennepin County attorney or Minneapolis city attorney for potential charges.
“As I read the settlement agreement … there might be some instances where they criminally violated the law,” Dziedzic said. “Reading all that, I think that should at least be discussed, and I think the public has the right to know — especially if it is, for whatever reason, not sent over.”
The Attorney General’s Office has not made a decision yet, according to a spokesman.
Northern Metal shut down the shredder on its own terms, not the community’s, said Philip Harder, a resident in northeast Minneapolis. He said he’s frustrated there may be no more consequences for the company, and he’s concerned about the unknown health effects that await the community.
“It’s just an example of that kind of corporate pollution crime and stalling techniques that they use,” Harder said. “You read about it a lot, but it’s really bizarre and frightening to see it right there in our neighborhood and be amazed at what a company like that can get away with.”
For now, Leaneagh said that while it’s important to find ways to recycle metal, she’s hoping people in Becker know the potential harm, particularly when it comes to lead poisoning.
“I hate to hear that they’re moving to another community,” Leaneagh said. “I just hope that they’re far away from children and vulnerable people.”
In his statement, Helberg said, “We are working closely with government officials, business leaders and local community groups to expand economic, educational and cultural opportunities in the Becker community.”