BECKER, MINN. – At the first Becker City Council meeting since the Northern Metal Recycling fire that closed schools and spread black smoke from burning scrapped vehicles for miles, residents demanded answers.
The Great River Area Impact Alliance was formed after the fire, bringing together people from Becker, Big Lake and Monticello who disapproved of the city's initial deal to bring Northern Metal to Becker after the facility's north Minneapolis shredding operations were shut down last fall.
"People are still going to say, 'Fool me once, fool me twice,' " said Minnesota Pollution Control Agency spokesman Ralph Pribble. "I'm confident the permit they received is fully protective of human health and the environment."
The MPCA cited high levels of air pollutants at the Minneapolis site, so shredding operations were moved to Becker last fall.
But now the Becker facility is facing an administrative order from the MPCA, which has a list of requirements Northern Metal has to satisfy before it can resume operations. At the time of the fire, the Becker site was not yet operational.
"I didn't feel 100% about them coming due to their track record," said alliance member Elizabeth Lee, 34, who lives in Becker Township. "I didn't feel like the MPCA or city would do anything to hold them accountable moving forward."
Lee's 5-year-old son, Jasper, has asthma. During the nearly weeklong fire that ignited Feb. 18, on their daily drives to day care in Big Lake, Jasper would cough when smoke came in through the vents, Lee said.
"It was so strong you could feel it in the back of your throat," she said. "We still don't know what we were breathing in."
The fire was not on the agenda for Wednesday's City Council meeting, but that didn't stop residents from showing up to voice concerns.
They were critical of the city allowing Northern Metal in Becker, some saying that the risk of a fire was not fully considered in relation to understaffed volunteer fire departments.
Northern Metal hired a third-party consultant to test the air, but Pribble said, "They weren't able to pull that together in a timely fashion, so we decided to start our own." The MPCA didn't conduct air testing until the fire had been burning for days and the worst of the blaze had blown over. A hazmat team conducted testing the day the fire broke out, but the local fire and police department decided not to evacuate residents, he said.
Pribble acknowledged that air quality testing information from the week of the blaze might not satisfy citizens.
The fire remains under investigation by the state fire marshal, while the MPCA is overseeing an environmental investigation into surface water, groundwater and soil contamination.
Lee told Mayor Tracy Bertram and council members Wednesday that she wants the city to set up a town hall meeting for residents to discuss the fire with city leaders.
The council did not discuss the fire during Wednesday's meeting. Local first responders and a representative of the MPCA gathered Monday for a debriefing on the fire, but that meeting was for officials and not posted on the city's website for the public to attend.
Ryan Hubbard of Becker said it wasn't fair of residents to be critical of Northern Metal because it was an "accident."
Everyone at the meeting drives a vehicle, he noted. Rather than have them end up in a landfill, Hubbard said scrapyards like Northern Metal recycle the resource many rely on.
"It's a dirty thing we have to do," he said.