It isn’t unusual for 19-year-old Taisia Cleveland to wake up to a foul smell in her north Minneapolis neighborhood that is just miles away from the controversial facility Northern Metals Recycling, but every so often the air is particularly difficult to breathe in.
On April 21, Cleveland was alerted to a fire at Northern Metals, which is located on the banks of the Mississippi. The smoke emitting from the flames overcast parts of Minneapolis and could be seen from miles away. But Cleveland did not need to be alerted about the fire to feel its effects. Breathing on that day took effort, she said, and had to be done in a strategic way to avoid a “burning feeling.”
“I felt like I was pushing the air out of my nose,” Cleveland said.
The fire is one in a series of incidents over the past few years that has put the facility at odds with not only the surrounding community but also with city and state officials.
Until recently, the facility had been shredding the remains of cars and other metals into scraps, a process that involved releasing carcinogens and other toxic emissions into the air.
In September 2019 the company was ordered to shutter its shredder and pay a $200,000 fine to the state of Minnesota after a whistleblower revealed the facility had been altering pollution records – an act that violated its permit. In a settlement with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), the company said it did not accurately record readings from equipment that measures air emissions and had changed the measurements to have the emissions be within a safe range. The violation was just a drop in the millions of dollars the company had spent for past violations.
The shredder was moved some 45 miles away to Becker, where in February 2020 a 60-foot pile of metal sparked a raging fire that lasted for five days, engulfing the surrounding area with the smell of tar and smoke. The same week a judge allowed the recycling plant to accept scrap metals to store in its north Minneapolis facility.
Metal and ‘fluff’ stored at the site
Currently the recycling center stores scrap pieces of metal and “fluff” that is described as all parts of a car that do not include the metal, including the rubber, plastic insulation and the material of the seats of the car. But activists and community members say the facility — which is owned by EMR, a company based in the United Kingdom and has facilities all over the world — has been reckless in monitoring the stockpiles of rubbish that some residents say tower higher than the 20-feet legal limit set by the city.
On April 21, a heap of fluff spontaneously combusted in what was initially described as a 50-foot stockpile in an incident report by the Minneapolis Fire Department and later changed to the legal limit of 20 feet. The fire was ruled an accident and the MPCA tweeted later that evening that while air quality sensors had detected a “short-term spike in fine particles” for a few hours, by the evening air quality had returned to the level it had been that morning.
“The height isn’t really the issue. The issue is why are we allowing this company to continue operating when they can’t keep their stuff from catching on fire?” said Evan Mulholland, an attorney at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy who works with a coalition of local residents who have been fighting for environmental justice in the area, Community Members for Environmental Justice (CMEJ). “What I don’t understand is why is there any fluff in north Minneapolis? It doesn’t make any sense to me if all this shredding is done in Becker.”
Roxxanne O’Brien, founder of CMEJ, says in the hours preceding the fire she felt a strange sensation in her throat and was feeling ill in the days after.
O’Brien says the April fire isn’t the only fire that has occurred at the facility and that another, involving a truck, was not reported. On May 18, along with her neighbors and other members of CMEJ, she rallied in front of Northern Metal’s Pacific Avenue location to implore city officials to take action once and for all.
In the weeks after the fire, members of CMEJ invited elected officials and candidates to meetings to discuss courses of action and request public displays of solidarity.
“We asked them to show up and say that you’re with us and not just during meetings or during emails and phone calls,” O’Brien said.
Ellison, Nezhad draft letter
Minneapolis Council Member Jeremiah Ellison, who represents Ward 5, where Northern Metals is located, says he and mayoral candidate Sheila Nezhad were the only two of a list of elected officials and candidates that attended the meetings that were organized to help interested parties in better understanding how to help nearby residents.
“It was a request by folks like Roxxanne and the people who have been coming to those meetings to say we have ideas about the end goals that we want, we as a community know what’s needed in order for us to have a healthy community. But you guys know what you can do at the city level. You guys know what you can do at the state level,” Ellison said. “And so how can we create a little bit of, you know, cohesion here around what the community is asking for and making sure that it can align with what can actually happen at the various levels of government?”
Ellison, who drafted a letter along with Nezhad to demand that Northern Metals be held accountable per the requests of CMEJ, says that while the city government cannot evict Northern Metals from the city as the company is grandfathered into its lease, the city can pressure them to leave. “What I do think we can do is we can make sure that it is not profitable for them to act in a careless way,” Ellison told MinnPost in a phone call.
One thing Ellison mentioned as a way to regulate Northern Metals was to create a cumulative effect of fines and fees. “As it stands, every time you resolve a violation, you kind of get a fresh start. I don’t think that Northern Metals, no matter how many minor violations they resolve — I don’t think they should be given a fresh start. And so those are things that we can kind of work out in a policy sense.”
Ellison and Nezhad’s letter [PDF] was sent to every elected official and candidate in the city seeking their signature as a statement of solidarity with the community activists. It was signed by every elected official except for Mayor Jacob Frey and Council Member Alondra Cano of Ward 9. Cano’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Frey’s office said in a statement, “Mayor Frey and City staff are working with the interjurisdictional partners named in the letter to explore all legal and regulatory options available to protect the health and safety of Minneapolis residents. The City is also currently in the process of identifying new regulatory measures and policies that would further reduce air and waterway pollution and mitigate fire risks.
“After a similar fire at the Northern Metal facility in Becker, the City’s Regulatory Services department stepped up inspections, resulting in smaller pile sizes and ensuring pathways to put out the fire were clear and maintained.”
“One of the tasks of the organizers was for folks who are running for office or currently in office to take a stand and support the community’s demands. And as a community organizer myself and someone who is running for office, it’s really important for me to follow the lead of the ground organizers,” Nezhad said.
The letter included a list of four demands: that Northern Metals release its lease to the City of Minneapolis to assist with transparency, as there is no current record of the facility’s lease; that it cease all activity; that the city increase monitoring of the site; and that the state make structural changes to ensure that similar communities will be protected from industrial pollution and that MPCA place all fines incurred by Northern Metals into an Environmental Justice Fund that would give the community the funds to invest in green infrastructure and jobs.
O’Brien says this is the most public support they’ve had from officials.
Shalini Gupta, who co-founded CMEJ, says that Ellison and Nezhad were the first to sign the letter. “They’ve taken a lot of leadership to help get their colleagues to sign it,” Gupta said. “And now this is the first time that we’ve had this many sitting elected officials and candidates speaking so clearly about environmental justice and racism, and specifically Northern Metals.”
But any growing momentum must be credited to the community, Gupta said, who have been fighting for decades.
“I think that community has ratcheted up and really galvanized around this latest fire, and has always done so on the heels of some of the violence in black and brown communities,” Gupta said. “This is another form of state sponsored violence. It’s not a gunshot, it’s not from the police, but it is a state sponsored form of violence on Black and brown communities that’s ongoing. And it’s supported because all these systems of government systemically are allowing this to happen.”
Rose Brewer, Ph.D., a professor of African-American and African studies at the University of Minnesota and a member of Environmental Justice Advocates of Minnesota, says that the facility entering a black and brown neighborhood is about power dynamics.
“Which communities have enough power to either shut something down or to keep it from being propagated from the beginning?” Brewer said. “Obviously, that is very much determined by class, race, and ethnicity. People in these communities have always been most impacted, and have had to fight the hardest.”
A 2019 study from the MPCA found that about 6 to 13 percent of deaths in the Twin Cities could partly be linked to air pollution. Another study found that north Minneapolis had the highest asthma rates in the state.
O’Brien says the air is regularly toxic and has also found herself having difficulty breathing at times. “Everybody that I know who’s ever moved to north Minneapolis and moved out knows the difference between the air in and out of here,” O’Brien said. “Everyone says when they move away, they can feel the differences and their health gets better.”
Cleveland, who has lived in the area since she was 7, says she worries about her health in the future and that of her infant son’s.
“Just because something isn’t happening to us right now or the day after we smelled this, doesn’t mean that something’s not going to happen in 10 years from now or 20 years from smelling whatever it is that was in the air,” Cleveland said.
O’Brien, who has been fighting for her community for over a decade, says she has no doubt that eventually Northern Metals will be forced to leave.
“I believe that Northern Metals will leave, but when and how is still a mystery to a lot of us,” O’Brien said. “We have tons of demands of how we think we can better hold them accountable, but we have a lot of pushback from different entities or different governmental agencies that act as if they have no power.”