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Citing “imminent and substantial danger” to the public, the state of Minnesota on Friday shut down a recycling company in Sherburne County where thousands of junked vehicles went up in flames this week, sending smoke billowing across communities northwest of the Twin Cities.

In an administrative order, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) prohibited Northern Metal Recycling from accepting any more scrap metal at its Becker facility as well as at its previous location in north Minneapolis, where it still has many junked vehicles stored. The company also is prohibited from operating its shredder, which grinds vehicles into recoverable metal.

Northern Metal had been preparing for the start of shredding operations, which were scheduled to begin Saturday, when the fire broke out early Tuesday. The burned vehicles were in storage on the site, ready to be shredded.

Now, the company is forbidden from operating until it completes a long list of required actions, including an environmental damage assessment, a cleanup plan and an updated plan for storage of scrap metal.

It also can’t bring in scrap or turn on the shredder until the likely source and cause of the fire is determined.

No one was injured in the blaze and no buildings were damaged, though Becker schools closed for the day on Thursday because of concerns over the heavy smoke.

Early test results released Friday found no harmful compounds in the air in and around Becker, though additional tests of falling ash are pending, Police Chief Brent Baloun said. Hours later, Baloun issued a statement saying the MPCA found no sign of metals in the air “in and around” Northern Metal and “low levels of particulates.”

“The tests,” his statement read, “show that the makeup of the air is similar to air around the state that wasn’t downwind from the smoke plume that came from” the plant fire. He said testing at “numerous locations” affected by the smoke, including the Becker and Big Lake schools, didn’t detect the presence of harmful chemicals in the air.

In a statement late Friday, the company said it “strongly objects to today’s contentions from the MPCA.”

“To be clear: the Northern Metals Recycling facility in Becker has never been operational,” said Scott Helberg, the company’s chief operating officer. “The shredder has yet to be turned on and its installation is ongoing. Nevertheless, the facility is otherwise in strict compliance with all applicable requirements.”

“We would particularly note that all of the recyclable metal subject to the fire was stored on impervious surfaces,” he added, “and all water from the firefighting efforts was contained on-site as part of our newly constructed stormwater containment system. Therefore, there does not appear to be any on- or off-site soil and groundwater impacts.”

Governor weighs in

Meanwhile, Gov. Tim Walz on Friday was critical of Northern Metal, saying the state would carefully monitor its response to the fire.

“This is an entity that I went to court with; it’s an entity that we moved out of north Minneapolis,” Walz said at a public forum at the University of Minnesota.

“I do not trust this entity to do the right thing,” he added.

The company settled a lawsuit with the state last fall after admitting that it misrepresented air monitoring records at its Minneapolis facility.

Sen. Andrew Mathews, R-Milaca, issued a statement Friday saying Northern Metal is “fully cooperating with the state and local officials. To suggest an arbitrary 30-day hold on permitting from the state is irresponsible and an overreaction. Businesses that require permitting should be allowed to immediately begin or resume operations once health and safety standards are assured and permit expectations are met.”

More than 100 fire crews responded to the Becker blaze, which was reported by a passerby at 2:25 a.m. Tuesday and ignited a stack of vehicles 40 feet high. It burned for more than 48 hours before it was contained, sending flames leaping 50 feet in the air and creating a plume of noxious black smoke that spread for more than 20 miles.

Code violations in Mpls.

Inspection records obtained by the Star Tribune show that fire inspectors had cited Northern Metal’s former facility in north Minneapolis for a variety of code violations related to its outside storage practices on Feb. 11 — just one week before the Becker fire erupted.

The Minneapolis inspectors cited violations of the state fire code related to the storage of combustible materials and for storing material outdoors in stacks exceeding 20 feet in height. The city gave the company until Friday to resolve the violations and scheduled a reinspection for Monday.

Becker officials did not respond Friday to messages seeking comment on whether their own inspectors had visited the shredder site before the fire or whether they were aware of the citations issued in Minneapolis.

Northern Metal moved its shredding operation from north Minneapolis to Becker last fall after the MPCA ordered it to shut down after finding high levels of air pollutants in the neighborhood.

The company was fined $200,000 after it admitted to altering and inaccurately recording pollution readings.

Over the past several days, consultants hired by the company and state have been testing air quality, ash and other residue samples in Becker for toxic materials.

The MPCA posted an update on its website Friday afternoon stating that “air sampling will continue until a determination is made that it’s no longer necessary.”

As of Friday night, the fire had been reduced to “a few smoldering spots,” Baloun said, adding that it could be extinguished by the end of the weekend.

John Reinan • 612-673-7402 Dan Browning • 612-673-4493