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For many northsiders, settlement with Northern Metals represents a small victory in a larger struggle

Northern Metals is hardly the only environmental issue north Minneapolis residents are worried about. 

Last week, the MPCA announced they may soon be reaching a settlement with Northern Metals that would resolve both court cases, and move the recycler out of the metro area by summer of 2019.
Creative Commons/MPCA Photos

For David Salmela — who’s lived across the river from the Northern Metal Recycling plant for eight years — the prospect that the recycler might be moving out of the city was welcome news. “That’s my biggest thing,” he said, “[their relocation] in a nonmetro area where they won’t be doing harm to any communities.”

Since last summer, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) has been in legal battles with Northern Metal Recycling (commonly known as Northern Metals), after the agency’s air monitors detected high levels of lead and other hazardous materials in the air surrounding the recycler’s north Minneapolis facility. The agency alleged the facility was in violation of its permit and filed to revoke it, and then in late August, a judge ordered the recycler to shut down part of its operations.

But last week, the MPCA announced it may soon be reaching a settlement with Northern Metals that would resolve both court cases, and move the recycler out of the metro area by summer of 2019. And tonight, city and state officials will be holding their second and final community input meeting to see how community members nearby the recycling plant want to see the settlement money spent. The meeting will take place at 6:30 p.m. at Eastside Neighborhood Services in northeast Minneapolis.

Salmela said he plans to attend tonight’s meeting to hear the community’s suggestions for potential settlement money. But mostly, he said, he wants to find out just why Northern Metals will be staying for nearly three more years before leaving the city — a fact that angered many in attendance at the MPCA’s community input meeting last week.

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“I have children and we’re concerned about the air that they breathe and what’s in the soil,” Salmela said.

Ongoing legal battles

MPCA’s Sarah Kilgriff said she understands why residents are frustrated over the potential settlement, but that the agency chose what it saw as the quickest route moving forward. The other option would be to continue fighting Northern Metals in court, she said, which could drag the case on for much longer. “Even if we revoke the permit, they can still reapply; they can appeal the court decision; they can sue us,” she said. “The court’s proceedings could go on and on for many, many years.”

The agency tried revoking the recycler’s operating permit last year but without any real progress. And Northern Metals already has a history of suing the MPCA for monitoring air quality around its facility. But Kilgriff said that through a settlement, the agency can at least establish a set date for the recycler to move, and out of the metro area entirely. Although exact details of the settlement haven’t been reached yet, she said.

Daniel Huff, health director for the Minneapolis Health Department, said the city has also been concerned with Northern Metals, but legally, can’t stop the recycler from operating. A settlement would put an end to the issue, he said, and also provide money to go towards health improvement projects. “The reason we are asking for input from the community is we want to make sure the community really has a say in how this goes,” he said.

Kilgriff said Northern Metals will also have to check in with city and community officials on a quarterly basis until they move, and that the MPCA will continue to monitor them closely. “Clearly this company is on our radar screen,” she said.

Northern Metal Recycling didn’t respond to a request for an interview.

An already burdened community

Northern Metals isn’t the only environmental issue Northside residents are worried about. For decades, residents have complained that the garbage burner in downtown Minneapolis, I-94 and a pair of roofing materials manufacturing plants, have had longstanding negative effects on the community’s health.

In fact, city and state officials have said the ZIP code harboring most of north Minneapolis has the highest asthma hospitalization rates in the state, and the highest levels of lead found in children in the city. Minnesota’s communities of color also continue to be disproportionately exposed to air pollution, according to the MPCA’s annual air quality report released earlier this month.

North Minneapolis pastor Dale Hulme said he’s seen those health disparities play out in his community for years. Recently, Hulme lost a family friend to cancer and said he believes the area’s poor air quality played a significant role in it.

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Blong Yang, Minneapolis City Council member for Ward 5, said air pollution isn’t a new problem to his part of the city, and he hopes tonight’s meeting draws a large turnout so his constituents have a say in how the settlement money gets spent.

Hulme said it’s great that the MPCA is getting Northern Metals out of the neighborhood, but with several polluters still in their backyard, the fight is far from over. “We’re also concerned … that the momentum not be lost when Northern Metals is taken care of,” he said. “There’s still a huge problem with air pollution and health issues in north Minneapolis.”

More fights to come

Last July, the Bottineau Neighborhood Association (BNA) released its initial findings from an independent environmental impact study it funded regarding asthma and cancer death rates among residents living near the Lowry Avenue Bridge.

The study, which analyzed 19 years of Minnesota Department of Health data, showed that pollution-related deaths within a mile of the bridge were 330 percent higher than other areas in the state with similar population density, and that asthma-related deaths were 844 percent higher.

“It is shocking,” said BNA president Mariam Slayhi. “It’s alarming and this should not be happening in a city like this at this time in history.”

The study, which will also include a compilation of asthma hospitalization data, will be published later this year through the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health, Slayhi said, and she’s hoping the evidence will be enough to take Northern Metals back to court.

Slayhi said the study cost the neighborhood group $38,000, and they want Northern Metals to pay it back in full. On top of that, she said, the group plans to demand more than $500,000 from the recycling company for restitution for victims and to help pay for further health studies in the area.

“We need to take action immediately to protect the public, to get restitution for the health-care costs, and to see who really needs help on both sides of the river,” she said.