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Northern Metal Recycling can resume storing junked vehicles at its north Minneapolis site but still must comply with orders from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency before reopening or operating its Becker, Minn., storage and shredding facility, a judge ruled Friday.

The company appeared in Ramsey County District Court to challenge the agency's emergency orders handed down last week in response to a massive industrial fire at its Becker plant that required more than 100 fire crews to extinguish.

The MPCA cited an "imminent and substantial danger" to the environment and public when it shut down the Sherburne County recycler of scrapped vehicles and barred it from accepting any more scrap metal at its previous shredding location in north Minneapolis.

Ramsey County Judge John Guthmann on Friday took issue with the MPCA's assessment of imminent danger without providing factual evidence for such a claim.

"There has to be more than a hypothetical risk, there has to be an imminent and substantial danger as a result of pollution of air, land or water and there isn't any claim that there is pollution of air, land or water at this time," Guthmann said.

But while he permitted the north Minneapolis plant to resume accepting scrap metal, the judge declined to weigh in on the Becker order, finding it out of his jurisdiction and instead saying that Northern Metal must appeal the issue to the state Court of Appeals or work it out with the MPCA.

Assistant Attorney General Christina Brown, who argued on behalf of the MPCA, said the agency issued its order as the fire still raged because it wanted to get to the bottom of any dangers posed to surrounding communities by the burning of hazardous materials and the use of millions of gallons of water to put out the blaze.

"A five-day fire that requires that response and the amount of work to put it out — I'm sure you've seen pictures of the smoke plumes that were out there — in our mind that is an imminent risk to public health," Brown said. "You're right, we don't know everything, we're trying to find it out and that's why we issued an emergency order. And what we're asking is cleanup, so we know what's going on, so we know what's there."

Thaddeus Lightfoot, an attorney for Northern Metal, called the order "a rush to judgment" issued "before any of the data with respect to alleged harms was known."

The company was cited this month for a fire-code violation at the north Minneapolis location for storing vehicles in stacks more than 20 feet high. Northern Metal ceased shredding operations there when the MPCA ordered it to shut down last fall after finding high levels of air pollutants in the neighborhood. It now only stores junked vehicles at the site.

The cause of the Feb. 18 blaze in Becker is still unknown. The fire sent flames leaping 50 feet in the air and created a plume of noxious black smoke that spread for more than 20 miles. It burned for more than 48 hours before it could be contained.

On Friday, Lightfoot said that the fire appeared to have started in a stockpile and may have come from "a suspicious source" because the plant was otherwise not being operated at the time.

The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy also joined the court challenge Friday. Speaking to reporters afterward, attorney Evan Mulholland called on the city of Minneapolis to step up to address fire code violations at the north Minneapolis plant.

Roxxanne O'Brien, a north Minneapolis community organizer who spent most of the past decade rallying for the closing of the Northern Metal plant, blamed the company's pollution on disparate rates of asthma and cancer in her community.

"So maybe people should take it a little more seriously about what's happening in our communities, by facilities and corporations such as Northern Metals, because they're burning all through our neighborhoods [and] Becker neighborhoods," O'Brien said.

"I've been fighting this for eight years with other people in my community and this is tiring. Where are the people who are in charge, who have the authority? Somebody needs to do their job and protect us."

Stephen Montemayor • 612-673-1755

Twitter: @smontemayor