North Minneapolis has a long history of air pollution that affects the health and well-being of its residents.
The former Northern Metals metal shredder was shut down in September 2019 after a whistleblower revealed that the company was altering records to make emissions appear safe. The metal shredding released carcinogens and other toxic emissions into the air, and as a result, that area has significantly more air particulates, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA).
In April 2021, various materials caught fire at the North Minneapolis site in what was ruled an accident. The MPCA tweeted that night that its air quality sensors had detected a “short-term spike in fine particles” for a few hours.
Until this January, Northern Metals had been using the riverfront site at 2800 Pacific St. as storage following a 2020 fire at its facilities in Becker, Minnesota. Since then, the North Minneapolis site has been cleared and is up for sale. While Northern Metals may not be storing metals anymore, blocks away, other companies are. Alliance Recycling, near the riverfront, located on 115 31st Ave. N., has multiple mounds of metal, what seemed to be over the state’s 20 foot limit.
It’s unclear how long those piles have been building up, and the city was unaware of the mounds that were violating state fire codes until MinnPost reached out regarding the issue, according to John Louis, the communications manager for the City of Minneapolis Community Planning and Economic Development (CPED). City inspectors said that Alliance is now moving the items from the stacks into rail cars and road trucks.
There has been a backup in Alliance’s services due to a national rail car shortage, people from the company told the city, and they expect to be up and running next week. Inspectors will revisit the site on Tuesday, Louis wrote in an email.
The locally owned company collects manufactured scrap metal, processes it, which sometimes involves mechanical shearing or baling, and then sends it via truck, rail, or other transportation to commercial consumers, who would then melt it or use it.
Another recycling site, Commercial Container Corp., is just blocks away at 2209 N. 2nd St. From outside the building, dust particles were in the air, making it harder to breathe.
The company allows people to dump inside the building, then takes out recyclable materials and landfills the rest. It’s unclear how long the trash stays at the site.
MinnPost reached out to Commercial Container Corp., wanting to find out more about the company’s environmental practices, and a representative from the company declined to comment.
The city’s Fire Inspections Services manages compliance regulations with codes by doing yearly checks. Any checks or inspections past that would generally be a result of complaints made to the city or reports filed by community members, Louis said.
After reaching out to the city about the site, the city spoke with the owners, who explained that their transport truck had recently broken down and that they are short-staffed, which is causing the piles to build up, Louis wrote in an email.
The neighborhood’s residents, who are predominately Black and live just a couple of blocks east, have already been exposed to the alarming air pollution. The Near North neighborhood is composed of 78 percent people of color, with Black people making up 50 percent of the population, according to Minnesota Compass.
Analyzing air pollution and health data from 2015, MPCA found that neighborhoods with mostly residents of color had five times the rate of asthma emergency room visits as majority white areas.
While Northern Metals was operating, the zip code of that area, 55411, had the highest rate of asthma hospitalizations in the state, according to the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA).
Although the Northern Metals shredder was shut down in 2019, the MPCA is still looking closely at the area. There are currently three monitors, and the MPCA hopes to add a fine particle monitor in the area by the end of the year.
There’s been a difference in air quality since Northern Metals shut down, resulting in a significant decrease in the number of total suspended particulates, PM 10 particles (which are inhalable particles) and lead, according to the MPCA. Despite the improvements in the air quality, Northern Metals’ presence still lingers. The industrial aspect of the area could still be contributing to more pollution.
“We do still see higher days (of particulate matter), especially on windy days. And we’ve seen them somewhat after the snow melt that we will get higher particles,” said MPCA Air Assessment Section Manager Kari Palmer.
She thinks those higher measures can partly be explained by the many unpaved roads in the area and the vehicle traffic for industrial uses.
Residents of the area are also concerned about odors, Palmer said.
The MPCA has not analyzed the 2020 and 2021 data yet, however, the data generally shows that PM 10 and total suspended particulate levels are still higher in North Minneapolis than in other areas, Palmer said.
“Residents have a lot of concerns around a number of industrial users down off the river,” said Minneapolis City Council Member Jeremiah Ellison, who represents Ward 5, where the industrial/residential corridor is located.
Blocks away, a big change is coming
One mile north, the city has big plans for change. The ambitious Upper Harbor Terminal project, not too far from the former Northern Metals site, is predicted to bring in more residential housing, commercial spaces and an outdoor entertainment complex at a cost of around $350 million.
The process for the project started back in 2015, once the site was no longer being used as a river terminal, and in October 2021, the Minneapolis City Council approved the redevelopment plan.
The plans include affordable housing, a health center, a 20-acre park and an amphitheater that will be run by First Avenue nightclub. United Properties is developing the project, although the city will own the land.
For housing, the city is aiming to create a “mixed-income community” with one-third of the units being affordable to households at 30-50% of Area Median Income (AMI), one-third being affordable to households at 50-70% of AMI and another third at market rental rates.
The plan says $3 from each amphitheater concert ticket will be set aside to subsidize local businesses, fund community art and support anti-displacement initiatives for neighborhood residents.
The amphitheater would give people from the neighborhood a place to gather and bring life to the area, says LaTrisha Vetaw, the Minneapolis Council Member for Ward 4, home to the Upper Harbor Terminal.
“The northside is always seen as like the scary place,” Vetaw said. “I think that it would be good to have a destination space where people can come from all over and bring some taxes to the neighborhood, which would allow to have more amenities in the neighborhood.”
Community Members for Environmental Justice and Minnesota Center opposes the plan as is
Although many believe this project will benefit the community, others feel it lacks some important considerations. Roxxanne O’Brien, who was involved in the project’s early stages, felt that the developers weren’t thinking about the community.
“The issue started to really happen when I just started seeing a lot of promises being made to anybody who would believe it. It started to be like this big kind of buying off anybody who would go for it,” O’Brien said. “I actually started to distrust the process and even distrust the integrity.”
O’Brien, a community organizer with Community Members for Environmental Justice (CMEJ), was on the Upper Harbor Terminal Collaborative Planning Committee, from which she later resigned.
“The first day that we got on there, you could pretty much tell that they were just going to try to convince our committee again with the same story for probably, I don’t know, 11 months of feeding us this plan, but not addressing the issues that we had put forward to the council,” she said.
O’Brien has been fighting against Northern Metals for years. This new development is just another way the city is not putting the community front and center, she said.
CMEJ is suing the City of Minneapolis over its redevelopment plan, citing inadequate environmental reviews and a lack of community engagement during the planning process.
In January 2021, the city was set to approve a plan for the Upper Harbor Terminal until CMEJ, and the MCEA notified them that they have to conduct an environmental review legally before making final decisions, said Melissa Lorentz, the lead attorney on the case. The city then conducted an environmental review and published it in July 2021. That review, the lawsuit claims, was not full-fledged.
“When we got the environmental review, when we saw it, it was incomplete. It’s almost like a kid filling out homework,” O’Brien said. “They didn’t speak to the cumulative impact of our community environmentally. They didn’t speak to climate change, which we thought was interesting cause we’re in a code red right now for climate change. And they also didn’t take into account gentrification or displacement issues.”
MCEA filed the lawsuit in October after the council approved the final plan.
“The environmental review didn’t talk about climate change. It didn’t talk about greenhouse gas emissions. It didn’t talk about ‘OK, this is a riverfront property. How is climate change, which we know is going to affect the river, how is that going to affect this project over time?'” Lorentz said. “This is a place where the city needs to pay more attention. Honestly, this environmental review really did the minimum.”
The case is currently in district court. Lorentz said they’ve been fighting over procedural issues, which are delaying the process.
“I would hope that they would just engage with the community and address these concerns. That seems like a much simpler solution than spending money. They’re paying private lawyers to do this. They hired an outside firm. So they’re spending taxpayer money to fight this,” Lorentz said.
Disagreement at the city council
Among the city council, there is also debate about the project and whether it addresses the community’s needs. Ellison wants to make sure the city considers all the environmental impacts of such a project.
“We should certainly ask for a higher consideration or a higher standard on the consideration for environmental impacts because it is the riverfront. It is really important that we get a large project like that right,” he said.
The city council approved the project 12-1, with Ellison being the sole opposing vote. Vetaw understands the various environmental concerns and still wants the project to move forward.
“I (understand) why people are apprehensive about things. Because we’ve been promised stuff, and people say, ‘Oh yeah, we’re gonna make sure this isn’t happening.’ So I get where they’re coming from,” she said. “Where my commitment is, is making sure that we don’t get the same deals.”
If done correctly, the project is an opportunity for growth in the northside, she said.
“People are very excited about the Upper Harbor Terminal,” she said. “I wanna make sure that whatever the final development is outside of the housing, that the people who live in the neighborhood have an opportunity to utilize it. I wanna see lots of jobs. It’s very important to me that we have, and not only just create jobs for the people in our neighborhood, but also create ongoing training so that people can maintain those jobs.”
Where the project is now
The project is in the first phase of development, meaning the city has been preparing the site by removing vegetation and doing rough grading. This phase is predicted to cost between $15 million and $20 million, according to Erik Hansen, the director of Policy & Economic Development for the City of Minneapolis.
By 2023, the city hopes to have water lines, sewer lines and roads. So far, the city has spent around five percent of the estimated $350 million allocated for the project.
What happens to its neighboring area, the former Northern Metals?
Hansen said the city is looking to purchase the former Northern Metals site and include that space in a larger park plan called “Above the Falls.”
The Above the Falls Regional Park is envisioned as a continuous parks and trails system along both banks of the Mississippi River, from the riverfront on the east bank and west bank of St. Anthony Falls up to Minneapolis’ border with Columbia Heights.
That plan requires the entire waterfront being publicly owned. Some areas, like Edgewater Park near Lowry, and the parkway north of the Plymouth Avenue bridge, have already been pursued by the city, Hansen said.
“The park board has been trying to buy the Northern Metals site because they want to take advantage of the opportunity to clean up a site that has a lot of hazardous issues and to have some land to continue that,” Hansen said. “When it’s all built, we should see a continuous trail system starting at the northern border of Minneapolis all the way down.”
Property records indicate the Northern Metals site is owned by Atlas Land Co., LLC. While there’s a potential purchaser, Riverfront Development Partners, the Park Board has its eye on it, Hansen said.
“There’s real keen interest (to purchase it) from the city side as well. We need to get rid of that thing. That is not a positive contributor to our community,” he said.