The embattled recycling company Northern Metals has admitted to altering pollution records and was ordered to shut down its north Minneapolis metal shredder weeks earlier than it wanted.
In a settlement with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency announced Monday, the company said it did not accurately record readings from equipment that measures air emissions and changed measurements to have the emissions appear safe. The false records not only violated its permit, but also abrogated a past court settlement and Minnesota’s record-keeping laws.
As a result, Northern Metals shuttered its shredder Monday evening and will pay a $200,000 penalty to the state of Minnesota — on top of millions of dollars they’ve already spent for past violations.
“Minnesota expects its corporate citizens to do the right thing and follow its permit requirements,” said MPCA commissioner Laura Bishop in a written statement. “These serious violations required a swift and proportional action.”
The admission is a reversal for Northern Metals. On Sept. 5, a lawyer for the company said in court filings that state regulators were trying to shut down the metal shredder based on “misleading allegations” from a whistleblower “that are entirely unsubstantiated.” William Hodgeman, a Northern Metals employee, had reported pollution readings to the state that didn’t match records filed by the company.
Northern Metals’ Chief Operating Officer Scott Helberg did not answer questions from MinnPost about the settlement. But in a statement, he said the company “is pleased to cooperatively resolve this matter with the MPCA.”
“We look forward to starting operations at our state-of-the-art Becker facility, which we believe will set the benchmark for sustainability and environmental protection for the recycling industry in Minnesota and the nation,” Helberg said.
Whistleblower information key to settlement
The closing of the metal shredder ends a long and winding battle over emissions at the north Minneapolis facility. The MPCA has monitored air quality at the shredder for more than five years and has found elevated levels of particulates, lead and other metals.
In a 2017 court settlement, Northern Metals agreed to move its facility to Becker, Minnesota — 45 miles northwest of Minneapolis — by August 2019, after the state tried to revoke the company’s permit. Northern Metals also paid a $1 million penalty to the state, $600,000 to the city of Minneapolis and funded three years of air monitoring.
When extreme weather delayed construction of the Becker facility, the company asked for a two-month extension, and had struck a preliminary deal with the MPCA to keep its Minneapolis operation open until mid-October.
But amid those talks, the MPCA accused Northern Metals of violating law by falsifying documents. The state based those explosive allegations on handwritten notes taken by Hodgeman, who took the readings at “pressure drop” equipment twice a day and gave them to a supervisor to be logged in official records.
Hodgeman said in an August court filing he was told not to write down measurements above an upper limit for air quality.
Northern Metals fought back against the allegations. The company accused the MPCA of breaking an agreement to negotiate in good faith while digging up dirt “that could support an alleged permit violation by Northern Metals where none existed,” according to court documents filed by attorney Joseph Maternowski.
Northern Metals also hired a private investigator who talked to Hodgeman. The investigator recorded Hodgeman saying he felt pressured by the MPCA to sign an affidavit that he had not fully read or understood. Maternowski painted the MPCA as overzealous and manipulative, and said Hodgeman didn’t know enough about the pollution control equipment to serve as a reliable witness. “Hodgeman’s statements were completely drafted by the MPCA, are entirely suspect, and are contradictory and inaccurate,” Maternowski said.
District Court Judge John Guthmann had ordered the MPCA, Northern Metals and Hodgeman to a court hearing Monday morning. But the hearing was canceled because of the settlement.
As part of the settlement, Northern Metals admitted it “did not accurately record” pressure drop readings from pollution control equipment and said eight measurements were “altered.” One of those readings was changed with white-out.
The discrepancies were revealed by Hodgeman’s notes. (He did not respond to a request for comment Monday.) In the new settlement, Northern Metals and the MPCA did not conclude whether the company had actually exceeded standards for air pollution on its permit.
Northern Metals also agreed the MPCA can reconsider its air permit for the new Becker facility to change the terms for measuring and reporting air pollution levels.
Call for criminal investigation
Northern Metals has long frustrated some community members in north Minneapolis, who say pollution from the facility has put their health at risk. On Monday, the nonprofits Community Members for Environmental Justice and Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy asked for a criminal investigation of Northern Metals.
Roxxanne O’Brien, an organizer for CMEJ, said she was happy the metal shredder was shut down, but was disappointed the public hearing was canceled because it would have allowed people to hear testimony “about the lies and deception of Northern Metals.”
“Once again, the MPCA failed to listen to the community harmed by the pollution from Northern Metals,” O’Brien said.
Darin Broton, a spokesman for the MPCA, said nothing in the settlement prevents Hennepin County or the state attorney general from pursuing criminal charges.
Chuck Laszewski, a spokesman for the Hennepin County Attorney, told MinnPost that no criminal case has been submitted to them by law enforcement or investigators. But he said “we stand ready to review it and consider charges,” should any be referred to them.
In a statement, Attorney General Keith Ellison said he believes the settlement reached with Northern Metals is “better than what we could have achieved at trial” because it shut down the shredding operation, garnered more cash than the maximum allowed by law at trial and benefited Becker residents.
“This is a win for all the people of Minnesota, especially the people of north Minneapolis who’ve been fighting for community health and environmental justice for years,” Ellison said.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said Northern Metals “has broken our laws and breached their agreement with the state, all while brazenly betraying the public’s trust.”
“Today’s decision to immediately shutdown the shredder is welcome news for a community that for years has borne the brunt of their bad action,” Frey said.