In north Minneapolis, bitterness follows Northern Metals retreat to rural Becker

Residents of north Minneapolis believe the metal shredder has given them the highest asthma hospitalization rate in Minnesota.

Residents of north Minneapolis believe the metal shredder has given them the highest asthma hospitalization rate in Minnesota. David Brewster, Star Tribune

Northern Metals Recycling, a metal shredder located in north Minneapolis, is being forced out of town after the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) discovered that it was pumping more pollutants into the air than it disclosed.

Residents, who for years complained of high asthma, heavy metal poisoning, and cancer rates, conducted their own studies. The Bottineau Neighborhood Association analyzed two decades of state health data to find that asthma-related deaths were 844 percent higher than in other parts of Minnesota.

MPCA sued Northern Metals, and in March came to an agreement that the shredder will have to move out by August 2019. Additionally, Northern Metals will have to pay $2.5 million in penalties, most of which will go to the state.

The city of Minneapolis will receive just $600,000 – less than a fourth of the pot – to spend on health projects. North Minneapolis residents will just have to wait for the funds to trickle down.

For some who have been fighting Northern Metals since the beginning, that doesn’t seem like a very good deal. They voiced their feelings of being cheated during a meeting with U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison on Monday, which was also attended by representatives of Minneapolis and the MPCA.

Sean McLoughlin observed that state and city officials “seemed to be very defensive and non-accountable.”

“It seems unjust that the state gets 76 percent of the settlement, and the community gets 24 percent. It’s actually delivered to the city of Minneapolis, which gets to decide how it’s spent.”

McLoughlin notes that Northern Metals operated in north Minneapolis, released toxins into the air of north Minneapolis, and is accused of sickening the people of north Minneapolis.

“A tax on blood money,” he called the state’s $1.9 million lion’s share.

On Monday, MPCA clarified how the state’s portion of the settlement will be spent. State law requires that Northern Metals’ $1 million civil penalty go to a general fund that supports government agencies doing environmental work. About $160,000 will pay for past air monitoring, and $300,000 will pay for three years of future monitoring. MPCA’s legal fees totaled $500,000. Minneapolis received the rest.

Prior to the settlement, the MPCA broke with the tradition of enforcement lawsuits by asking the public how they thought the money should be spent. There were two listening sessions in January, held in Northeast and North, where dozens of citizens suggested building parks, constructing walkways, getting some concrete samples of resident health, and divvying up the money so everybody got a check.

“A group that large, you can imagine the diversity of ideas,” says Jeff Smith of the MPCA. “At the end of the day, we thought the best way to manage this money was the city of Minneapolis would be the best folks [to distribute it] because they were closer to the neighbors.”

Minneapolis has decided to give the money to on-the-street blood testing for lead, and a new program that will deploy housing inspectors to rental properties where children with asthma live, so they can find and reduce asthma triggers.That program is modeled after a research study from 10 years ago that found significant reductions in hospital visits by children who took part.

Both of these ideas were the result of public input, says Dan Huff, head of Minneapolis’ environmental health department.

“One thing to clarify, as part of this settlement, funds were designated for health mitigation,” he says. “That should not be confused with reparations to the community. This is a limited amount of funding that we hope to do some good work with that will protect children in the neighborhood. It is not necessarily to repair any or all damage caused in north Minneapolis. No way.”

In order to get real reparations, residents of north Minneapolis would have to take their own legal action. Whereas the MPCA sued over enforcement, residents could bring a class-action for personal damages.

According to the Bottineau Neighborhood Association, that’s something that should eventually happen – though only after residents have gathered enough evidence to demand a much larger payout.

“BNA wants the money to go toward better and clearer health studies to hold all the air polluters [in the area] accountable. When that happens, then we can begin to talk restitution for the health damages caused by the air polluters,” wrote the association’s Nancy Pryzmus. “Many millions ($75 to $100 million) in restitution would only reflect part of what should be paid for the damages to the community's health over the past 50 years.”

As it turns out, while Minneapolis will have to share the settlement with the state, they'll also share the burden of Northern Metals. The shredder plans to move to Becker, Minnesota, where residents already live under the shadow of Xcel Energy's coal-fired power plant. That plant too has been accused of causing asthma and cancer in the community.

Kathryn Tasto, a Becker resident who has recently begun to research Northern Metals, says that while she supports metal recycling, she's concerned about doing it at the cost of human health. 

"It’s fine to come to town, but I think it’s going to be up to our city officials to hold Northern Metals accountable, to hold their feet to the fire that they strictly follow the MPCA permits," Tasto says. "Our city’s gotta be on top of what they’re doing and not let them get away with anything.