Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
When Allison Lind of Minneapolis was evaluating day cares for her son Eli, now 2 1/2, she needed a spreadsheet to manage her extensive search criteria for a safe, caring and educational facility.
What wasn't on her checklist — and shouldn't have needed to be — was nearby air pollution readings. Lind, a nurse, is now lamenting her confidence in the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) to enforce air quality standards around her neighborhood.
Eli attends the Circulo de Amigos child care center in south Minneapolis. While he loves it, the facility is located across Cedar Avenue from an iron foundry that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently alleged "has been violating air emissions laws since at least 2018," according to a Nov. 7 Star Tribune report. The Sahan Journal first published the EPA findings.
It's important to note that the MPCA on Tuesday vigorously challenged the EPA's conclusions and methodology. Still, Lind is understandably worried about potential impact on her son's health and is asking a valid question: Where was the MPCA?
"I thought I could trust [an agency] that has pollution control in their name to do pollution control," Lind told an editorial writer.
Lind's concerns are echoed by others who live or work near the foundry — some of whom have complained about air quality for years — and need to be taken seriously by state lawmakers. While there are community meetings planned, this involves a state agency's performance and public health.
Most of the violations alleged in the EPA report were for failure to control fine particulates. These can remain in the atmosphere for some time and when inhaled can "reach deep inside the lungs, leading to a wide range of health problems," according to the American Heart Association.
At a minimum, a legislative hearing is in order and should be a priority early in the 2024 session. This would help reassure those who live near Smith Foundry and a nearby asphalt paving company that their concerns are now being heard.
The Star Tribune Editorial Board recommends another important follow-up: swiftly enlisting the respected legislative auditor to evaluate the MPCA's foundry oversight. That review could help policymakers and the public navigate the complex scientific differences between state and federal regulators over the foundry's emissions and whether these exceeded standards.
The legislative auditor, an office long headed by the venerable but now retired Jim Nobles, has substantial subject matter expertise. It previously investigated Water Gremlin Co., which operated in White Bear Township.
In 2021, the auditor released an accessible, though alarming, report about this north-metro manufacturer. It concluded the company had "operated with no air emission limits during those years as it emitted very large amounts trichloroethylene, or TCE, a degreaser classified as a hazardous air pollutant."
The Water Gremlin debacle is a troubling backdrop to the current questions about the foundry's oversight. To their credit, MPCA officials this week emphasized their concern about the neighborhood and were accessible, speaking at length with Star Tribune reporters and an editorial writer. Officials said they are "working closely" with the EPA to understand how federal investigators reached their conclusion.
"The data that we have ... show that there is not a violation of the permit, there is not an exceedance of the air standards in that neighborhood," MPCA Commissioner Katrina Kessler said in a Wednesday Star Tribune story.
Kessler and officials also noted the work underway to update the foundry's permit, an effort begun in 2016. While this is a complex undertaking, legislators should inquire about how long this is taking and whether the MPCA has the resources it needs. In addition, MPCA officials noted other air quality work in this neighborhood, citing the planned 2025 closure of the asphalt facility next to the foundry.
The EPA did not reply to an editorial writer's inquiry but told the Star Tribune reporters this week that the agency stands by its findings. Varying approaches to doing the calculations appear to be at the heart of the two agencies' scientific disagreement.
Legislators delving into the EPA report should consider one more issue. The 2015 Legislature abolished the powerful MPCA Citizens Board after it ran afoul of agricultural lobbies. That was a dubious decision, one that should reconsidered in 2024 to ensure that everyday Minnesotans' pollution concerns are heard and heeded by regulators.