The operator of a metal shredding facility in north Minneapolis agreed to shut it down permanently Monday after admitting to altering and inaccurately recording pollution readings over the summer.
A legal settlement, filed Monday in Ramsey County District Court, marked an end to a bitter and yearslong effort by North Side residents and environmental activists to move Northern Metal Recycling out of their neighborhood. Many blamed the high levels of air pollution around the shredder for serious health problems, including heart attacks, bronchitis and asthma.
The shredder ceased operation Monday evening, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA).
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who represented the MPCA in the case, called the settlement “a win for all the people of Minnesota, especially the people of north Minneapolis who’ve been fighting for community health and environmental justice for years.”
The company had been ordered to stop shredding at the facility, located just south of Lowry Avenue along the Mississippi River, by Aug. 1 in a separate agreement with the MPCA in 2017. But a last-minute ruling by Ramsey County District Judge John Guthmann allowed the company to stay in operation past that date as it finished a new facility in Becker, Minn.
Then on Aug. 1, a company employee, William Hodgeman, reached out to the MPCA, according to court documents. Hodgeman, whose job it was to record readings for the facility’s pollution control equipment, said he was told by Northern Metal’s management not to write down readings that exceeded the company’s air emissions permit.
Information provided by Hodgeman and investigated by the MPCA — and confirmed by Monday’s settlement — showed that readings from pollution filters were altered eight times over the summer, including by using white-out ink. In at least seven cases, readings that would have required corrective measures were changed to numbers that were below the action level, according to the settlement.
“The gravity of Northern Metals’ violations could not be more serious,” the state argued in the filing detailing the whistleblower’s account. “The willfulness and number of falsifications demonstrates that Northern Metals’ conduct was not an aberration — but rather an intentional, regular, and routinized process of falsification of its Records.”
Guthmann ordered an evidentiary hearing to learn whether Northern Metal had violated its earlier agreement with the MPCA. However, the hearing Monday was canceled and the settlement was announced later in the day.
In addition to the eight altered records mentioned in earlier court filings, Northern Metal also admitted that its log book did not have accurate readings for three other dates over the summer, according to Monday’s settlement. But the agreement did not resolve whether the company had violated its pollution limits.
The settlement marked the first time that Northern Metal admitted to altering its records, according to Ellison.
Northern Metal officials did not respond to a request for an interview. The company issued a statement from Scott Helberg, the chief operating officer for Northern Metal.
“Northern Metals is pleased to cooperatively resolve this matter with the MPCA,” he said. “We look forward to starting operations at our state-of-the-art Becker facility, which we believe will set the benchmark for sustainability and environmental protection for the recycling industry in Minnesota and the nation.”
As part of Monday’s settlement, that facility will have additional monitors and reports for its pollution control equipment in its new location. It was also ordered to pay $200,000 to the MPCA.
State and city officials on Monday celebrated the court’s order to shut down the shredding facility.
“Northern Metal Recycling broke the public’s trust and showed a willful disregard toward its neighbors,” Laura Bishop, commissioner for the MPCA, said in a statement. “These serious violations required a swift and proportional action.”
Minneapolis Council Member Jeremiah Ellison, who represents the shredder’s neighbors, said that although he was “frustrated and disappointed” that the company did not stop shredding by Aug. 1, “I’m excited to see them being shut down.”
Not everyone who fought the shredder was happy with the outcome.
Roxxanne O’Brien, a community activist who was involved in the lawsuit, said the settlement has “nothing that’s going to benefit the community.”
She said neighbors will still organize against the company, including letting people in Becker know about its history in the North Side.
“We’re still moving forward and still being thankful for the fact that maybe some of our neighbors will be able to breathe a little bit better as of tonight,” O’Brien said.
The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, which represented a resident group in the lawsuit, called for the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office to begin a criminal investigation. They objected to the settlement, since having an evidentiary hearing would have allowed residents to “learn the full truth about Northern Metals’ pollution and the extent to which it was covered up.”
Miguel Otárola • 612-673-4753