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Short notice, low turnout: Northern Metals’ meeting draws criticism

Jeff Smith of the MPCA said the agency doesn’t know when Northern Metals will hold its next public meeting, but that according to the settlement, they’ll need to do it quarterly.

Northern Metals agreed to move part of its operations out of the city and pay $2.5 million in fees and penalties as part of a legal settlement.
Creative Commons/MPCA Photos

A public meeting last week between Northern Metal Recycling and its surrounding neighborhoods is drawing criticism from community members who say the mandatory meeting wasn’t properly promoted.

The north Minneapolis metal recycling company, commonly referred to as Northern Metals, agreed to move part of its operations out of the city and pay $2.5 million in fees and penalties as part of a legal settlement that the company struck with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency last March. The settlement resolved two court cases the company had with the MPCA after the agency found the recycler was operating outside of its permits, and Northern Metals now has until Aug. 1, 2019, to move its metal shredder out of the Twin Cities metro area.

The settlement also requires Northern Metals to host quarterly public meetings in the surrounding neighborhoods in north and northeast Minneapolis, with hopes of bridging growing tensions between the company and several neighborhood organizations that have been pushing for the plant to leave the riverside location for years.

“The point of the meetings is just to build the relationship between the company, Northern Metals, and the community itself,” said Jeff Smith, director of the MPCA’s industrial division. “We’ve seen when companies in places where there’s some conflict with the neighborhood groups, that when they can get together and talk through the issues … we’ve seen that really be helpful.”

A rocky start

But many community members saw last week’s event — the first one held since the settlement was reached — as a rocky start to a series of public meetings meant to rebuild community trust, and several community members complained they weren’t given enough advanced notice to attend.

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“It was not well promoted,” said northeast Minneapolis resident Anna Bierbrauer. “Let’s just say that.”

Bierbrauer, a resident of Minneapolis’ Bottineau neighborhood for 10 years, said that she received word of the meeting from a forwarded email just three days before it happened. And as a working mother of two, she said, that simply didn’t give her enough time to attend. “It’s completely unreasonable to have less than a week’s notice and expect people to drop everything,” she said. “I most definitely would have gone if I had prior notice and could have worked it into my schedule.”

Tessa Gedatus, who moved into the Marshall Terrace neighborhood just across the river from the recycling plant two years ago, had a similar experience. She caught wind of the meeting three days before when she noticed an email from the MPCA. But between working, going to school and having a 3-year-old child, Gedatus said, it wasn’t enough time to make the necessary arrangements to go. “I would love to have enough time to be able to find a babysitter or take the time off of work to be able to be there,” she said.

Mariam Slayhi, executive director of the Bottineau Neighborhood Association, said they didn’t receive word about the meeting until that same morning. “We didn’t get the information until 9:40 a.m.,” Slayhi said. “I thought, ‘What’s going on? You’re supposed to make this public to the people.’ ”

Both city and MPCA officials said they attempted to promote the event, but that they, too, were given a week or less to plan for it, and that ultimately, the responsibility for the meetings falls on Northern Metals.

MPCA spokesperson Risikat Adesaogun said the result of the short notice was a low turnout at what she believed would have been a high-profile meeting. “I didn’t see more than 10 people at a time,” Adesaogun said. “I would say maybe 20, total.”

For Slayhi, the poorly promoted forum only further fueled her skepticism that Northern Metals wants to build any kind of relationship with the community groups involved. “They don’t really want it to be a dialogue,” she said. “They don’t really want to hear from the community.”

Smith said the MPCA doesn’t know when Northern Metals will hold its next public meeting, but that according to the settlement, it’ll need to do it quarterly, and the next one will likely be within the next few months. “This maybe didn’t go as well as some had hoped, and the good thing is that there will be other ones,” he said. “This is not supposed to be a secret, closed-door meeting.”

Northern Metal Recycling didn’t respond to repeated requests for an interview.

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Next steps

For those who did attend the June 27 meeting, some left confused over the purpose of it. Slayhi said she went hoping to hear updates on Northern Metals’ timeline for leaving, or to be able to give further input on how the settlement money would be used, but she didn’t get answers from the company. “It was strange,” she said. “There’s a lot of components here that are not really clear.”

As part of the $2.5 million settlement, $600,000 will go to the Minneapolis Health Department to be used specifically to mitigate adverse health effects potentially caused by the metal recycler’s emissions — things such as paying for lead exposure testing, and health clinics to help with asthma cases, for example, said city officials.

MPCA’s Smith said the particulars of the settlement — such as how much money and how it’ll be spent, as well as when the metal shredder must move out of the metro — have already been decided in court, and that last week’s meeting was only meant to rebuild community relations, not discuss potential changes to the settlement. “I think there’s been some confusion on it,” he said. “Those public meetings were held last winter and in the spring.”

As for the $600,000, the city is currently in the process of forming an advisory committee to decide just how that money gets spent, said Lisa Smestad with the Minneapolis Health Department. “We have received the first $200,000 payment and that’s just sitting in the bank,” she said. “We haven’t spent any of that and we don’t intend to until this committee is formed.”

More information on that committee, including how to apply, will be available after the Health Department makes its final recommendations to the city council on Aug. 7.