Residents of four neighborhoods near the Lowry Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis are raising concerns about air pollution after a study they commissioned found elevated death rates, including from cancers and asthma, in the area.

Researchers hired by the neighborhood didn't pinpoint a cause of the deaths, but activists didn't hesitate Monday to point fingers at the GAF roofing factory next to the bridge. The activists, organized as Eastside Quality of Life, want the state to further limit volatile organic compounds produced at GAF. They also say the city shouldn't continue to lease the southern end of its former Upper Harbor Terminal to GAF for storing shingles beyond 2017.

"We don't want to shut them down. We just want them to clean up," said Nancy Przymus, the Bottineau neighborhood group's coordinator.

GAF issued a statement disputing the conclusion that its plant contributed to the negative health effects. The company noted that it made a $1 million investment in its equipment last year that allows it to burn off more of the volatile organic compounds.

The neighborhood study, not yet published beyond a statistical summary, found that census tracts corresponding with the Hawthorne and McKinley areas on the North Side and Bottineau and Marshall Terrace areas of northeast Minneapolis had elevated death rates. Researchers Tonye Sylvanus and Stephanie Yuen combed 19 years of Minnesota Department of Health vital statistics for the causes of death for tract residents.

They found a death rate as high as three times the state average for all deaths and as high as twice the state average for all cancers. Generally, the worst outcomes were reported in the Hawthorne neighborhood.

Other health factors?

After the researchers made a data request for state health records, the Minnesota Department of Health used different data for a broader area to construct a cancer incidence study for four north and northeast Minneapolis ZIP codes. They found elevated incidence of certain cancers in the North Side ZIP codes, particularly for total cancers among men, compared to metro rates.

But the study largely attributed those elevated rates to racial disparities in cancer incidence. They noted that cancer rates for black residents of the North Side, while higher than the state average, are in line with black residents throughout the metro.

But Przymus faulted the state study for being too broad geographically, diluting the impact of pollution in the river area. The state study also considered cancer incidence, not deaths, and is for a much shorter time frame.

The river area "has been exposed to generations of polluted air," said Mariam Slayhi, president of the Bottineau group.

Many of the complaints about GAF come in to the city when residents report an unpleasant, tar-like smell.

Jim Doten, a city environmental services supervisor, said city observations have found "a pretty big reduction in the occurrence and level of the odors" since GAF added the new equipment last year. He said they still occur, but with less intensity and frequency. But complaints logged when GAF isn't operating suggest there may be another source for the smell, Doten said.

GAF employs 100 union workers and has been on the riverfront since 1935. It said it made the operational changes to help minimize odors.

"Not only has GAF been and continues to be in compliance with all applicable environmental regulations, we take great care to be responsive to the issues raised by the surrounding community," the company statement said.

However, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, which last amended the plant's permit in 2005 for an expansion, has recorded several compliance issues for the company involving late reports and missing record keeping.

GAF is not the only industrial facility in the river area that has drawn the ire of residents and attention of state regulators.

The state has moved to revoke the air emission permit for Northern Metal Recycling, just downstream of the bridge, after a state monitor there found repeated violations of particulate limits.

The Bottineau neighborhood has spent about $37,000 so far for the study of mortality in the area, with about $16,000 coming from a city grant. The next phase of the study, pending research approval, will involve interviewing residents of the four census areas to determine cancer incidence among living residents. Sylvanus said he hopes to complete that work by November.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438

Twitter: @brandtmpls