Clang and Blame

City Council member Joe Biernat's new video has been a hit around north and northeast Minneapolis neighborhood meetings. Audiences particularly like the panoramic shots of machinery towering five stories high; the shaky camera pans across a labyrinthine mass of conveyor belts running hundreds of feet, zooms in on the mouths of pipes the height of a person, glides along heaps of metal as tall as a small apartment building. The decibel level is practically off the scale.

The footage is of Kondirators--newfangled metal shredders capable of chewing up to 100 tons per hour of car parts, industrial refuse, and old appliances. The machines, according to their promoters, have taken the European scrap industry into a new era, and for the past few years a local company called American Iron and Supply has been looking to install the first U.S. Kondirator at its scrapyard in north Minneapolis along the Mississippi River. The project has turned into a seven-year political nightmare that is now headed for the courts.

Biernat (3rd Ward) wasn't on the Council in 1989, when a "special council permit" for the Kondirator breezed through without serious discussion or opposition. By the time he came on in '93, the city--having belatedly noticed a neighborhood uproar--was on record opposing the project. They didn't have the best case to stop it, though: The area is zoned for industrial use, and the city's tiny environmental health division said it couldn't hope to do an in-depth study of the project's potential harmful effects.

So in 1994 the state Legislature passed a law requiring the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to do an Environmental Assessment Worksheet on the project. Kondirator opponents hoped that that would lead to an Environmental Impact Statement, which in turn would stall the project or kill it for good.

It didn't turn out that way, though. After taking more than two years to review information (most of it supplied directly by AIS), the MPCA concluded that noise and chemical pollution from the Kondirator--including heavy metal-laden dust and deafening noise--could be kept to acceptable levels. The agency based most of its determination on computer modeling, though the Legislature had explicitly demanded data from existing Kondirators elsewhere in the world. Officials said they had trouble with time zone differences, language barriers, and unanswered phone calls.

Biernat says none of those things turned out to be much of a problem when he and city staffers tried to contact Kondirator operators and environmental regulators in England. They set up a tour and and invited MPCA officials to come along. Much has been made since of the circumstances of that April mission, and the fact that City Council member Steve Minn (13th Ward) gave AIS representatives interested in following Biernat a copy of the itinerary. There was little attention, however, to the substance of what Biernat found.

Besides Kondirator footage, the hours of video he gathered include interviews with neighbors of the huge shredders. They complained about dust accumulating on windows, cars, and furniture; incessant noise; "burning rubber smells"; and vibration. Similar problems were documented in English environmental studies, which also described explosions--apparently caused by crushing of the random gas or propane tank tossed into the maw of a Kondirator--that shook neighborhoods, sometimes several times a day.

None of this, AIS and the MPCA maintain, should be a problem in Minneapolis. The company says it's planning to keep a tight lid on what goes into the Kondirator, to build a huge sound wall around it, and to install a fabric filter that would capture most of the dust from the machine. But Biernat and other critics don't trust those promises. "All of the regulators [in England] told us that if they had it to do over again, they wouldn't want something like this in the neighborhood," Biernat says. "They were so envious of our position here, because we're in a situation where we can be proactive. The information we got on this trip alone should give the MPCA enough reason to reconsider the project. And it proved that despite their excuses, it's perfectly possible to get that information. We have six people [in the Minneapolis environmental health division]. They have 900."

MPCA spokeswoman Deb Dolan says the agency found the trip helpful but it still didn't yield the kind of data it was looking for. Dolan says regulators still believe AIS will be able to hold pollution to a permissible level. If it doesn't, the operators could get a warning, and then a ticket--and, theoretically, a shutdown order, though the pressures against closing the plant once it's in operation obviously would be enormous. As for whether a big shredder belongs on the riverfront and near a residential neighborhood, says Dolan, that's a "local land-use matter" for the city and AIS to resolve.

MPCA critics say that approach shows the agency has lost whatever teeth it once had. State Rep. Phyllis Kahn (DFL-Mpls.), who, with some digging of her own, unearthed Kondirator studies from Germany and passed them on to the MPCA, calls the agency's performance "at best totally incompetent." A longtime critic of MPCA rules, Kahn says the episode has convinced her that an environmental review process whose ground rules were set in the early 1970s needs to be radically overhauled.

Even if that happens, it won't come soon enough to get the city out of the hot water the Kondirator flap has generated. Within days of the MPCA board's final vote on the Environmental Assessment Worksheet June 11, Japs-Olson, a high-tech printing business operating next to AIS, announced it was considering moving up to 600 jobs to St. Louis Park in part to get away from the Kondirator site. City officials vowed to fight to keep them in town; they've already voted to appeal the MPCA's decision in Hennepin County District Court.

On a separate front, American Iron sued the city two years ago for backtracking on its permit and generally being uncooperative. That case has been in suspended animation for a while, but Walter Rockenstein, an attorney and former City Council member who represents American Iron, says it will be revived soon. The company has also sent a letter to Biernat warning him he could face a personal defamation lawsuit over his anti-Kondirator statements. And though a court fight is likely to cost both AIS and city taxpayers plenty, the fronts are only hardening. "There really isn't a middle ground here," says Biernat. "This is a decision of major importance for the riverfront, and the ecology of the Mississippi as a whole. We need to litigate this all the way."

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