A legal scrap over a whistleblower has roiled a years-long feud between state regulators and Northern Metals after the state raised allegations in recent weeks that the company falsified records to evade limits on toxic emissions at its North Minneapolis metal shredder.
Armed with hand-written notes from the plant as evidence, Northern Metals employee William Hodgeman helped the state build a case that the company was not only breaking the scope of its permit, but it had committed “blatant” violations of state law, according to court filings made in late August by state Assistant Attorney General Christina Brown on behalf of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
Yet a week later, Northern Metals filed court documents with its own remarkable allegation, based on the work of a private investigator: that the MPCA had manipulated and bullied Hodgeman into providing statements he “did not fully read or understand.”
The MPCA has denied any wrongdoing and defended its findings. But District Court Judge John Guthmann ordered Hodgeman and a host of others to appear at a hearing on Monday, September 23, to sort out the issue. Guthmann also barred Northern Metals and the MPCA from talking with Hodgeman about his testimony.
“Northern Metals argues that MPCA conducted a witch hunt for damaging information against it,” says a filing from the AG’s Office. “This is false.”
How we got here
The metal shredder has long been a source of complaints and anger among north Minneapolis residents, and has also been on the MPCA’s radar since 2013, when it began monitoring air quality at the plant as part of its process for re-issuing air quality permits.
The testing has found elevated levels of particulates, lead and other metals, and in 2015, the agency began trying to revoke Northern Metals’ permit, saying the company failed to give regulators crucial information.
In 2017, Northern Metals reached a court settlement with the MPCA to move its metal shredder outside of the Twin Cities metro by Aug. 1, 2019. The company also agreed to pay a $1 million penalty to the state, $600,000 to Minneapolis for community health projects and fund three years of air monitoring.
Before the August deadline, however, Northern Metals asked for a two-month extension, saying construction delays at their new facility had pushed back their timeline. The MPCA said no. “The MPCA made a commitment to the residents of north Minneapolis more than two years ago that Northern Metals’ shredding operation would move out of the city to improve the air quality in the neighborhood,” commissioner Laura Bishop said in a July statement. “That’s a commitment the MPCA intends to keep.”
Northern Metals challenged the decision, and entered into a dispute resolution process with the MPCA, a route guaranteed in the 2017 settlement. The company struck a tentative deal with the MPCA on Aug. 20 to shut down its recycling facility by October 15, according to emails submitted to the court by Northern Metals. The court also said Northern Metals could keep operating in the meantime.
A whistleblower emerges
That would not be the last twist in the saga. About a week after the MPCA reached a preliminary agreement for the mid-October shutdown, the agency asked the district court to shutter the Minneapolis facility early because they believed Northern Metals had falsified records kept on its pollution control equipment.
The accusation was based on testimony from Hodgeman, a Northern Metals employee who said he was instructed by management at the facility not to write down pollution equipment readings outside a limit, which he suspected indicated higher levels of emissions.
On July 31, Hodgeman reached out to the MPCA, and eventually sent the agency photographs of hand-written records from the control equipment. Brent Rohne, an MPCA air emissions inspector, told the court that readings in Hodgeman’s notes from eight days didn’t match Northern Metals’ records. And the company even appeared to have changed one of those records using white out, Rohne said.
Brown, the assistant AG, concluded in court documents that the evidence showed Northern Metals was “engaged in the systematic falsification of the pollution control equipment inspection records it is required to maintain under Minnesota law,” as well as its emissions permit and its settlement.
In turn, Northern Metals attorney Joseph Maternowski accused an “embattled” MPCA of breaking the agreement to negotiate in good faith by secretly working to “dig up dirt that could support an alleged permit violation by Northern Metals where none existed.”
Hodgeman’s supervisor told the court he never instructed Hodgeman to report false numbers. Maternowski said the equipment Hodgeman was reading is just one component of an emissions control system and is “subject to fluctuation and self-correction.”
Northern Metals’ law firm also hired a private investigator who spoke at length to Hodgeman. In a transcript of the interview, Hodgeman said he felt caught in the middle of something he should not have been and was pressured to sign a court statement on a 15-minute work break near the Northern Metals facility.
Hodgeman told investigator Lisa Ditlefsen he read through the affidavit in “less than five minutes,” and worried he was being threatened with a subpoena if he didn’t sign it. He also told the investigator he was prompted to reach out to the MPCA by a former Northern Metals employee who didn’t like the company. “I shouldn’t have signed something I didn’t fully understand or read all the way either,” Hodgeman said, according to the transcript.
Ditlefsen said in a later conversation that Hodgeman told her he had not been ordered to falsify records. Hodgeman also told Ditlefsen he was hoping to move with the company to its new Becker facility, but he, nor any other employees, had been promised a job yet.
Northern Metals’ Maternowski concluded: “Hodgeman’s statements were completely drafted by MPCA, are entirely suspect, and are contradictory and inaccurate.”
MPCA strikes back
The Attorney General’s office seized on the filings from Northern Metals, saying the company did not dispute they falsified records and didn’t provide details on their record-keeping procedures.
Rohne told the court that Hodgeman was a willing partner who contacted the MPCA first. He said he simply warned Hodgeman he could be subpoenaed to testify if the investigation went to court, not in an effort to intimidate but to give Hodgeman full information about what could happen if he cooperated with the agency.
In the conversation with the private investigator, Hodgeman repeatedly said he was worried about why his readings and numbers in the official company records didn’t match. He also said he believed the affidavit he signed was generally accurate.
In Hodgeman’s initial email the MPCA, he asked to be anonymous and put in touch with Bishop, the MPCA commissioner. The next day he emailed the agency questioning Northern Metals’ air readings and saying the building had been “smokier than normal.” Hodgeman eventually authorized the MPCA to use his name in court filings.
The court has not weighed in on Hodgeman’s role in the proceedings or ruled on whether Northern Metals falsified its documents. And the MPCA and Northern Metals could still reach a final settlement on whether to shut down before the move to Becker. An MPCA spokesman declined to comment this week, while Northern Metals also did not respond to requests for comment. Hodgeman also did not respond to a request for comment.
But Hodgeman and many of those involved are currently set for a court hearing Monday morning. Judge Guthmann also ordered Northern Metals to close its North Minneapolis facility by October 15.
“There is one critical issue before the court: whether Northern Metals falsified their pollution control equipment records,” the AG’s office wrote.