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In wake of Northern Metals move, community groups target another Minneapolis industrial operation

Cancer rates more than twice as high around Lowry Bridge than other area, and asthma rates nearly nine times the normal rate.

Last fall, 53-year-old John Smaciarz was diagnosed with an aggressive lung cancer that almost took his life. That’s one of the reasons why he joined a recent community effort to push a manufacturer of roof shingles, GAF, out of his northeast Minneapolis neighborhood. “I’d like to find out why the cancer rate right around this bridge is so high,” he said.

Over the last four years, there have been concerted efforts by community organizers in parts of north and northeast Minneapolis to push industrial polluters out of the area. Last March, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency settled a court battle with Northern Metal Recycling that will eventually move much of the company’s metal recycling operations from its riverside location to the suburbs.

Now some community organizations have their crosshairs fixed on their next target: GAF.  

On Dec. 18, the Bottineau Neighborhood Organization (BNA) released a privately funded analysis of MPCA air monitoring data, a report that they say shows that pollution around the Lowry Bridge area where the GAF plant is located is far above the state’s health standards. Coupling the data with another study BNA commissioned in 2016 — which showed cancer rates more than twice as high around Lowry Bridge than other area, and asthma rates nearly nine times the normal rate — the group says there’s now enough evidence for the MPCA to take more action against GAF.

“These guys really need to leave,” BNA Executive Director Mariam Slayhi said of GAF. “This is not the right place for them to be doing that.”

Conflicting reports

According to BNA’s study, which was conducted by a third-party researcher, the amount of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the air surrounding the Lowry Bridge are more than three times the level than what the state deems safe. The VOCs include chemicals like formaldehyde, along with several others that are linked to cancer and liver disease risks.

But MPCA’s air assessment manager, Frank Kohlasch, said BNA’s analysis of the agency’s data, which mostly came from three years of monitoring from a site in north Minneapolis, isn’t entirely accurate. “We’ve been looking into the analysis and we disagree with the results that they get,” Kohlasch said. “For most of the chemicals they reported numbers for, we do not know how they accounted for the large number of days that our analysis shows we did not detect that chemical.”

In other words, Kohlasch said, for more than half of the VOCs the MPCA tests for, the presence of those chemicals was so low that 80 percent of the time MPCA’s instruments couldn’t pick them up. The other half they could detect, he said, but only formaldehyde was above state safety standards.

Another problem, Kohlasch said, was that BNA seemed to using older state health standards, many of which were stricter than what MPCA uses today. That may explain some of the discrepancies between the two analyses, he said.

As for the high levels of formaldehyde, Kohlasch said, the MPCA has been aware of that phenomenon for some time and it’s not limited to the Lowry Bridge area. “What we know with formaldehyde is that it is above the health benchmarks across the entire Twin Cities,” he said. “We are in the middle of an analysis to try and understand the reasons for that.”

Mounting public pressure

BNA’s Nancy Przymus sticks by the group’s analysis. She wants to see less talking and more action taken against polluters like GAF. “We’ve followed all the rules,” she said. “We have been patient while our friends and our families continue to get cancers at an outrageous rate.”

Pryzmus is not alone in her sentiments. There’s been a growing pressure from community organizations like BNA and Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, and politicians like Jacob Frey, to move industrial operations out of north Minneapolis.

But MPCA officials said their hands are tied when it comes to GAF, which declined to comment for this story. Sarah Kilgriff, the MPCA’s land and air compliance manager, said GAF has routinely passed their inspections over the last decade. Since 2009, she said, the facility has been inspected by the MPCA three times and has only been cited for minor violations. “Basically, paperwork-type violations,” she said. “Honestly, the facility has a good compliance history with the agency in terms of air quality.”

Don Smith, MPCA’s air permit manager, said GAF’s emissions are significantly lower than what their state permit allows. While community members have criticized GAF’s permit, which allows them to emit up to 95 tons of VOCs annually, he said, GAF has consistently emitted between just three and four tons a year.

Kohlasch said he’s aware of mounting community pressure to remove these facilities, but if they’re not violating their permits, there’s not much the agency can do. “Our authority … is not to be making decisions for people where particular activities should be happening,” he said. “It’s that we’re setting up the correct permit and other requirements to protect public health.”

Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 12/22/2017 - 03:31 pm.

    Welcome to Minneapolis! Now

    Welcome to Minneapolis!

    Now get out.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/22/2017 - 07:38 pm.

    If roofing manufacturing is a public health issue

    …I’d like to find out more, since there’s an Owens-Corning shingle factory a few blocks away from me in my Shingle Creek neighborhood.

  3. Submitted by joe smith on 12/23/2017 - 09:27 am.

    Two of my favorite take aways from this

    story are, moving Northern Metals to the suburbs (where pollution is fine) and less talk more action when the MPCA disagrees with the findings of BNA. In other words move the damn business because we are telling you to,!
    On a side note throwing businesses out of your neighborhood doesn’t help with employment.

    • Submitted by Henk Tobias on 12/23/2017 - 10:06 am.

      Take away from your comment

      You agree BNA that Northern Metals is polluting “(where pollution is fine)”, but ignore that to take cheap shot at the concerned citizens of the neighborhood.

      Side note: Some folks value their health over the profits of Corporations.

      • Submitted by joe smith on 12/24/2017 - 10:39 am.

        No Henk, in order for Northern

        Metals to move to the suburbs, they would have to be permitted to open up a plant. I will go slow now, they would have to submit multiple tests to multiple agencies, then they would have to pass these pollution standards (paying themselves for every study), then and only then would they be able to open a plant. I was making the ironic point that the jobs liberals scream for in the inner city are being shipped out to the suburbs by groups they back!!
        Henk, not sure how many businesses you have opened but from sewage lines, parking lot run off, electrical impact (yes the amount of light your business will throw off), to environmental impact are looked at and standards must be met. Hate to tell you, but Northern Metals didn’t sneak a plant in Whitebear Lake and are polluting at will.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/26/2017 - 12:16 pm.

      Pollution is Fine!

      The big difference is that the suburban locations are not in residential areas. No one in Maple Grove is going to be living right across the street from the Northern Metals operation. There is no way they would be allowed to move in under those circumstances.

      Poorer urban neighborhoods have long been the dumping ground for all manner of noxious activities. It’s high time that stopped.

      • Submitted by joe smith on 12/27/2017 - 01:02 pm.

        RB, the standards are the same whether

        you are building a plant in Mpls or Warroad. There are permitting standards that have to be met to get started. The “poorer urban neighborhoods being a dumping grounds” you claim, is simply not true. Please show me where the MPCA is allowing noxious activities in poor neighborhoods.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/28/2017 - 09:17 am.


          Yes, the permitting process is the same throughout the state. The difference is that older plants located in the core cities tend to be located in residential neighborhoods (just a couple of blocks from me are houses that literally have grain elevators in their back yards). grain elevators). Whether this is by design or by historical accident is open to debate.

          A plant that relocates to the suburbs, however, is going to be located in an exclusively industrial area. There will be some physical buffer between the plant and homes.

          • Submitted by joe smith on 12/30/2017 - 08:33 pm.

            As I stated, the talking point

            of noxious pollution being allowed in the poor communities, is not true. While you may have a dated plant in the urban setting, you have to have up to date scrubbers and pollution controlled emissions. So getting back to my main point of liberals backing the very groups taking jobs out of poor areas makes no sense. They are hurting the very folks they claim to care about.

  4. Submitted by John Ferman on 12/23/2017 - 10:28 am.

    MPCA Standards Less Stringent

    In his own words “Kohlasch said, was that BNA seemed to using older state health standards, many of which were stricter than what MPCA uses today” this must be true. Along with less stringent standards comes increased health and safety consequences. When did MPCA opt for more ill-health.

  5. Submitted by Cornel Culp on 12/26/2017 - 06:11 pm.

    I wonder

    The removal of these companies from this particular stretch of property is interesting. It makes the land prime real estate for development. It has great views of the river to continue the gentrification of that area – “The North Loop” AKA North Minneapolis

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