See more of the story

With the flames now out, investigators have left the scene of a massive industrial fire in Becker, Minn., turning the Northern Metal Recycling property back to its owners, authorities said Monday.

Meanwhile, the company has been cited for another fire code violation at its north Minneapolis location, where it has been storing junked vehicles during its move to the Becker site in Sherburne County, 45 miles northwest of Minneapolis.

"All outside agencies have left the Northern Metal property and the scene has been turned back over to the company," Becker Police Chief Brent Baloun said in a statement Monday. "The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency [MPCA] will continue monitoring stormwater contained on-site and will work with the company and local officials to assess potential environmental impacts and planning for cleanup."

More than 100 fire crews responded to the Becker blaze, which was reported by a passerby at 2:25 a.m. on Feb. 18 and ignited a stack of vehicles 40 feet high. The cause of the fire is still unknown.

The fire 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 across communities northwest of the metro area.

The Becker facility was in its final days of testing before beginning full operations when the fire broke out. Its giant shredder is capable of grinding up a vehicle in about 15 seconds and recovering metals for recycling. Tracy Bertram, Becker's mayor, said the facility is "state of the art. It's probably one of the best in the United States."

Although investigators have cleared the scene, the company can't reopen or operate its shredder until it complies with a list of required actions ordered by the MPCA, 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.

Northern Metal moved its shredding operation from north Minneapolis to Becker last fall after the MPCA ordered it to shut down the Minneapolis operation 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.

On Feb. 11 — one week before the fire — Minneapolis fire inspectors cited the company's former facility in north Minneapolis for a variety of fire code violations related to the storage of combustible materials and storing material outdoors in stacks exceeding 20 feet in height.

On Monday, officials inspected the site again and found that the company was still violating fire code by storing vehicles in stacks more than 20 feet high, said Brad Schmoll of Minneapolis Fire Inspection Services.

"The majority of issues were abated, except storage issues," Schmoll said. "The height of the piles is the biggest issue. They are working on it. They are trying to gain compliance."

Schmoll said the company was issued a citation and a $250 fine.

The north Minneapolis site will be inspected weekly, with the fine doubling each time until all violations are corrected. Under the MPCA's shutdown order, the shredder in Becker can't operate until all requirements are met, including bringing its Minneapolis site into compliance.

Inspectors are confident that the north Minneapolis site poses no imminent hazard to residents, Schmoll added.

"From a fire and life safety perspective, people should feel comfortable," he said.

John Reinan • 612-673-7402