Judge allows some Northern Metal operations to resume; city to reinspect Minneapolis site

A pile of crushed cars.
Demolished cars wait to be processed at Northern Metal Recycling in Becker, Minn., on Feb. 20.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Updated: 4:32 p.m.

City officials are set to reinspect the Northern Metal Recycling facility in north Minneapolis on Monday, in the wake of a judge’s order on Friday allowing the company to resume accepting scrap metal.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency had ordered Northern Metal to stop operations at both its Minneapolis and Becker, Minn., facilities last week, in the wake of a massive and stubborn fire in a pile of junked cars at the Becker site.

But Ramsey County District Court Judge John Guthmann on Friday rejected arguments by the MPCA and Community Members for Environmental Justice that the Minneapolis facility poses an “imminent and substantial threat” to the public, a requirement for the state’s emergency order to shut down both facilities.

An environmental group representing concerned Minneapolis residents called on city officials to step in on Friday after the ruling.

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“I’ve been fighting this for eight years with other people in my community. This is tiring,” Roxxanne O’Brien, of the Minneapolis community group, said following the judge’s ruling.

In a brief statement sent to MPR News, Minneapolis officials said the city is “exploring its options following this ruling.” They said an open city order requires Northern Metal to reduce the size of its scrap metal piles in Minneapolis, which will be inspected on Monday.

With regard to Northern Metal’s Becker operations, Guthmann said he was unable to rule because it’s outside of his jurisdiction. Northern Metal will have to ask the state Court of Appeals to weigh in on the order, he said.

The company’s attorney, Thaddeus Lightfoot, said the MPCA’s argument that Minneapolis metal storage operations should end, to prevent the company from stockpiling too much scrap — possibly causing another fire danger — was all speculation.

Lightfoot also tried to get the judge to reverse the state’s order shutting down the Becker facility, where the company is close to starting operations at a new, $75 million recycling plant. He said the MPCA’s order “shuts down the entire facility, even parts that were not compromised (by the fire) whatsoever.”

Lightfoot also said the best way to decrease the risk of any more fires at the Becker facility would be to start processing scrap in the new shredder.

The fire, which occurred in piles of scrapped vehicles, burned for several days and the smoke plume forced officials to close Becker schools for a day. The fire remains under investigation.

An attorney for the MPCA argued the agency’s emergency order was put in place to assess any ongoing risk of fire or release of pollutants and to protect the public.

“We’re not trying to make this a permanent shutdown,” Assistant Attorney General Christina Brown said.