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.”
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.”