Roxxanne O'Brien was just pulling up to her home from the grocery store one day last month when she got a call that a pile of debris at Northern Metal Recycling was on fire.
O'Brien, an environmental justice activist, was part of a group that helped push the company to move its metal shredder out of their north Minneapolis neighborhood nearly two years ago, as part of a settlement with state regulators over air pollution violations.
"We had hoped that that would alleviate much of the burden, which it did, for the emissions that Northern Metal was causing,” O’Brien said.
The company moved its shredding operation about 50 miles north, to the central Minnesota city of Becker. But Northern Metal is still permitted to store scrap at its Pacific Street site in north Minneapolis.
Grow the Future of Public Media
MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!
That worries O'Brien, who knows that most fires at recycling sites don't happen during shredding, but when scrap metal is stockpiled in storage yards.
"I feel angry about the latest fire, and the probability that it can happen again,” she said. “I don't think there'll be any action or accountability or even consequences, because there hasn't been this far.”
Firefighters were able to extinguish the April 21 blaze in a couple of hours — much faster than in February 2020, when a massive fire erupted in a scrap pile at Northern Metal's new facility in Becker. That fire burned for several days, casting a huge plume of smoke over town.
Big scrap yard fires, like the ones in Becker and Minneapolis, attract a lot of attention.
"I think everybody is aware of the fact that a scrap yard, it's not just metal,” said state fire marshal Jim Smith. “It's plastic parts, it's batteries, it's all sorts of stuff that's in that smoke. That kind of raises that red flag to the general public that, ‘Whoa, this is a big thing.’ "
Still, Smith said he hasn't seen a trend of scrap yard fires happening more frequently in the state.
Not just metal
It might seem unlikely that metal would catch fire. But scrap piles consist of junk vehicles, appliances and other metal objects, whose batteries are removed and fluids drained before the metal is recycled. But it’s possible for some to get missed, and for a spark to ignite a fire.
There’s been an increase nationwide in scrap metal fires caused by lithium-ion batteries, which are in many consumer products such as cell phones and e-cigarettes, said Ryan Fogelman, vice president of Fire Rover, which makes a fire detection and suppression system.
“The problem with them is they're prevalent everywhere,” said Fogelman, who tracks fires at recycling facilities across the country.
Trying to pinpoint the exact cause of a scrap yard fire can be tough, Smith said, and those fires can pose a serious challenge for firefighters. All that metal burns very hot, and some components, like magnesium, are explosive when they react with oxygen, he said.
"It's extremely difficult to get at the seat of the fire, and we don't know what's burning,” Smith said.
Firefighters are required to use a lot of water to extinguish the fires, and that contaminated water can pose a pollution problem, he said. At the Becker fire, water used to fight the blaze was contained in a holding pond on the site.
“We definitely don't want that going down a sewer or something like that, because the endpoint is possibly the Mississippi River,” Smith said.
The city of Minneapolis ruled last month’s fire accidental, the result of spontaneous combustion at the center of a large pile of rubbish and metal. It spread rapidly before employees could extinguish it. No injuries were reported.
Shortly after the Becker fire in February 2020, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency ordered Northern Metal to stop accepting scrap metal at its Minneapolis and Becker sites until it corrected fire code violations. A judge later allowed operations to resume.
A spokesperson for the city said Minneapolis inspectors have visited the Northern Metal site 18 times since then, including the week before the April 21 fire. They found it was in compliance with fire codes, including keeping storage piles under 20 feet high.
Compliance helped reduce the size of the fire and made it easier for fire crews to extinguish, she said.
Northern Metal and its parent company, EMR, didn’t respond to requests for an interview for this story.
The state pollution control agency said air monitors registered a short-term spike in fine particles in north Minneapolis the day of the fire, but the air returned to normal levels fairly quickly, said Kari Palmer, manager of MPCA’s air assessment section. She said the agency is continuing to monitor the air for metals and other pollutants in the area.
Legacy of pollution
Still, it's the long-term impact of poor air quality in this heavily industrialized neighborhood that worries state Rep. Fue Lee, DFL-Minneapolis, whose district includes the scrap metal site.
Lee said he doesn't understand why the company is still allowed to have a presence in north Minneapolis, where residents have higher than average rates of asthma and other health conditions linked to poor air quality.
"We already have some of the worst health disparities in the state,” he said. “Having facilities like Northern Metal and other industries on the riverfront is just going to pile on that."
Lee is sponsoring legislation that would require state regulators to consider residents' cumulative exposure to pollutants before issuing permits to industries in environmental justice areas.
Those include communities whose residents are mostly Indigenous or people of color, or who have low incomes — groups who have been disproportionately affected by air pollution.
Lee also wants the MPCA to hold public hearings every five years on industries with air quality permits that don’t expire.
“I think this is an opportunity for some accountability and transparency, from both the MPCA and the facility, to really hear from communities that are next to these facilities, to see if that's something that's actually needed in their communities,” he said.
O'Brien said she supports the proposals, but worries they face an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled Senate.
In the meantime, she said, north Minneapolis’ long history of air pollution is yet another challenge, in a year marred by COVID-19 and the police killing of George Floyd.
“We can’t breathe for many reasons,” she said. “And our Black lives continue not to matter to our city and state government.”
O’Brien said she and other community members are planning their next steps, hoping to see the Northern Metal site shut down for good.