As fire continues, state halts most Northern Metal operations in Becker

A pile of ice-covered cars seen through a whole in a metal wall.
By Thursday, firefighters had created an access point to reach the pile of cars that caught fire Tuesday morning at Northern Metal Recycling in Becker.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Update: 9:20 p.m.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency on Friday ordered Northern Metal Recycling to stop accepting scrap metal at its Minneapolis and Becker, Minn., sites until it corrects fire code violations and submits a damage assessment and a plan for storing vehicles.

The order effectively halts most of the company’s Becker operations before they could begin. It comes as piles of scrapped vehicles at the company’s new recycling facility in Becker continue to burn for the fourth straight day, and air pollution specialists monitor for potentially hazardous substances.

A plume of smoke from the fire has raised concerns among local residents about whether the air is safe to breathe.

Northern Metal moved to Becker at the end of 2019 from its former location in north Minneapolis, where it had a fraught relationship with local residents and state pollution officials.

The company faced air quality permit violations and was accused of submitting inaccurate emissions data to the state. It agreed to pay a fine and move its shredding operations out of Minneapolis last year, but continues to store vehicles and other scrap metal at the site.

MPCA spokesperson Darin Broton said the fire at Northern Metals’ Becker site prompted city fire officials in Minneapolis to inspect the company’s site in their city. They cited Northern Metal for numerous fire code violations related to not having an adequate water supply or access for emergency vehicles.

The agency ordered the company to stop accepting any scrap metal at its Minneapolis site until it submits plans to the MPCA for how to store vehicles and other debris while also protecting human health and safety.

The agency’s order said that both the Becker fire and the Minneapolis violations demonstrate that Northern Metal “does not have metal collecting and storage practices in place at either location that protect the health and welfare of Minnesota residents.”

The MPCA sent its order to Northern Metal on Friday. In addition to the prohibition on accepting scrap at its Minneapolis location, the company must also make changes at its new facility in Becker:

  • The company must stop accepting any scrap metal at the Becker location until it completes an environmental damage assessment of the area affected by the fire, and the MPCA approves it.

  • Northern Metal also must submit a cleanup plan to the MPCA for how it will remove all contaminated ash, water, soil and other debris leftover from the fire — not just at the recycling plant, but also in the wider Becker community.

  • In addition, the company must submit a plan for how it will store scrap metal and other debris at the Becker site in the future to protect human health and the environment.

The company had not yet begun operations in Becker when the fire began, but had been collecting vehicles onsite and had just received required state and local permits. The MPCA order prohibits Northern Metal from operating its shredder until the fire is fully extinguished and investigators have a chance to determine what likely caused the blaze.

The company also must take action to control “fugitive dust” — tiny particles created by ash and fire debris — from becoming airborne or being tracked off the site by vehicles.

Northern Metal COO Scott Helberg issued a statement protesting the MPCA’s findings released Friday:

“The company worked closely with the MPCA to obtain all necessary permitting approvals. To be clear: the Northern Metals Recycling facility in Becker has never been operational. 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.”

A pile of ice-covered cars.
Water used to fight the fire at Northern Metal Recycling in Becker quickly turned to ice over the crushed metal cars which created a barrier making it more challenging to extinguish the flames. Photographed on Thursday.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Questions about air quality

The order comes as the MPCA and Northern Metal both have had contractors at the Becker site assessing the air quality.

MPCA contractors started sampling the air on Thursday for volatile organic compounds and metals. The agency said initial results it received Friday afternoon showed nothing unusual. Results for lead testing were expected later Friday. In addition, MPCA staff used monitors to test for particulate matter, which showed levels similar to the metro area.

According to Becker police, the fire at the recycling plant flared again late Thursday, sending smoke over the city once more.

Members of the Minnesota Hazardous Materials Emergency Response Team were called to conduct a third round of air testing for chemicals that would likely make people sick, such as carbon monoxide or sulfur dioxide, but did not detect any. The MPCA air samples detect a broader range of chemicals.

Gov. Tim Walz said Friday that Northern Metal should be held accountable for any possible violations.

During a discussion at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School, Walz said he is often criticized for some of the state's regulations on businesses. But companies that handle potential pollutants, he said, should be closely monitored.

"This is that fine line that we have these things in place,” he said, “the government as a regulator in working with businesses to ensure worker safety and children's safety and ensure public safety."

According to Becker police, firefighting efforts at the recycling plant have been turned over to a private company. The fire has been reduced to a few smoldering spots and could be extinguished by the end of the weekend, police said.

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