Machine Nightmares

THE MACHINE HAS assumed almost mythic proportions in local politics. It's consumed thousands of hours of debate; tens of thousands of public dollars have been spent for consultants and environmental studies. Yet after six years of back-and-forth, the only thing that looks certain is that it will all go on for years more.

The machine is the Kondirator, a newfangled, German-made shredder that can turn 1,000 tons of metal into fluff every day. American Iron and Supply, a family-owned company that's been sorting and selling scrap in north Minneapolis for half a century, wants to put it up on its yard just south of Lowry Avenue on the west bank of the Mississippi. It would be the first such installation in the United States, standing 65 feet tall, stretching 450 feet, running 10 hours a day, seven days a week and churning out heavy-metal dust even with pollution-control equipment.

At first it looked easy. American Iron went to its City Council member, Sandra Hilary, and asked for her signature on a "special council permit." She obliged. There were still some variances and permits to be gotten, but the road looked smooth. North and northeast Minneapolis have been the city's designated heavy-industry zones for a long time, and American Iron enjoyed a generally happy relationship with city pols; its principals, Fred and John Isaacs, have given generously to local campaigns, and one of their lawyers is former City Council member Walter Rockenstein.

Then the neighbors caught wind of it. For some 20 years they'd been clamoring for a piece of the beautification action that always seemed to end up downtown or south. And then, just when the city was starting to talk about parks and office buildings and retail along their riverfront, came the Kondirator plan.

Hilary and the council perked up. In 1990 they hastily passed a one-year moratorium on new metal shredders in the area; a year later they voted to demand an environmental review for the American Iron project. The company agreed at first, then changed its mind and sued the city. After three years in limbo, rumors circulated that the city was going to settle. The neighbors went to their legislators, and in the waning days of the 1994 session a Kondirator amendment passed, requiring the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to review the project.

The MPCA was never gung-ho about the idea; it had politely declined city requests for an environmental assessment back in 1991. Now the agency had no choice. Eighteen months and $70,000 later, the positive assessment came out last month to an immediate chorus of boos--with some of the most strenuous objections coming from the now-repentant city. A document compiled by several city agencies with the help of an outside consultant called the MPCA's product "a highly exact model with no relationship to real project conditions," based largely on computer calculations, hopeful estimates, and tunnel vision. A person trying to apply the MPCA's pollution estimates to herself, the number-crunchers wrote, would have to "believe that the Kondirator would operate for exactly 15 years--no more, no less... that the [materials processed] would exactly match specifications for every scrap batch for the next 15 years... that pollution control devices would never fail, and always operate at design efficiencies." Critics also note that the MPCA reviewed the Kondirator in isolation--calculating its lead emissions as safe, for example, without taking into account the already elevated lead in neighborhood children's blood.

As environmental regulation goes, none of this is particularly unusual. Pollution standards generally are a product of refined math, with disagreement limited to which mathematical model is best. In that sense, American Iron was simply unfortunate enough to attract more than the usual kind of scrutiny. A neighborhood meeting two weeks ago on the issue was packed, and MPCA officials say they've received hundreds of public comments. And no matter what the agency does, the saga will likely continue for years. The Minneapolis Park Board, for one, is already on record demanding a more stringent Environmental Impact Statement; its attorney, Brian Rice, says the board is prepared to go to court over the matter. And the city, too, has been digging in its heels in apparent fear of business flight if the Kondirator's built.

American Iron representatives didn't return calls for this story, but it's obvious that at some point, as markets and technologies change, the project may no longer be worth their while. But having gone this far, they're also unlikely to simply give up. American Iron once estimated potential lost profits if the Kondirator didn't go in at more than $40 million, not counting the running tab for lawyers, lobbyists, and consultants. Their lawsuit is still pending.

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