East Phillips residents press regulators to close foundry

People hold signs outside a large building
Dozens of people gather outside the Smith Foundry in Minneapolis during a protest on Nov. 10. At a public meeting Monday evening with environmental regulators, many demanded the plant be shut down rather than go through a permitting process.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Residents of a south Minneapolis neighborhood gathered in an overflowing meeting room Monday to demand the immediate closure of an iron foundry after federal regulators found that it was emitting excessive amounts of pollution. They also pressed for answers from state regulators about why they didn’t take action sooner.

Resident Nicole Mason said the problems have long been evident in the area’s high rates of lung and cardiovascular disease and the grime that accumulates on her windowsills.

“We have COPD, asthma, heart problems. In our home, we can smell something that smells like burning rubber or chemicals all the time,” Mason said. “If you keep your window open, even in the bathroom, everywhere there’s dust.”

Woman in hat
East Phillips neighborhood resident Nicole Mason speaks during a public meeting at the Phillips Community Center on Monday.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

A surprise Environmental Protection Agency inspection of the Smith Foundry in May uncovered cracks in ductwork and missing pollution control equipment, which the EPA alleges resulted in elevated levels of fine particulate matter fouling the air in East Phillips, a diverse neighborhood that’s home to many Dakota and Ojibwe people.

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!

Mason — who lives a half a block away from the plant — says she started speaking out about the pollution after her granddaughter was diagnosed with asthma.

The foundry near 28th Street and Hiawatha Avenue is not far from a former pesticide plant that blew arsenic dust into East Phillips in the mid-20th century. As part of its Superfund program, the EPA removed contaminated soil from the area, including from the yard of former state Rep. Karen Clark.

Woman speaks in a microphone
Former state Rep. Karen Clark speaks at a community meeting with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency on Monday in Minneapolis. The MPCA was responding to criticism over its handling of pollution at the Smith Foundry.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

In 2008, the DFLer authored the law that requires the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to analyze cumulative health effects of industrial facilities in areas with demographics similar to East Phillips before issuing air permits.

“One of my questions is when is the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency going to start enforcing the 15-year-old cumulative health impact law? When?”

The MPCA conducted its own inspection of the Smith Foundry earlier this month but not until after the Sahan Journal published the results of the EPA’s inspection earlier this year.

Last week, MPCA commissioner Katrina Kessler told the Star Tribune that the state’s own data shows that the Smith Foundry is not exceeding air pollution standards. At Monday’s community meeting, Rep. Aisha Gomez, DFL-Minneapolis and many others demanded that Kessler explain the discrepancy.

“We are working actively with the EPA, with the facility. We want to work actively with you to hold people accountable,” Kessler said.

Woman listening
Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Commissioner Katrina Kessler listens as residents criticize the agency's response to a south Minneapolis iron foundry on Monday.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

A spokesperson for Smith Foundry said the facility is working with regulators to address and correct any issues that the EPA found. The company says it’s hired an engineering firm to help with emissions testing.

Other MPCA officials promised that the agency will set up additional pollution monitoring equipment in the coming weeks, and regulators plan to test emissions directly from the smokestack in December. The MPCA says it will gather public feedback and set new limits and testing requirements ahead of a final permit decision that it expects to make by late next year.

But some at Monday night’s meeting called the permitting process a bureaucratic red herring meant to distract from the community’s demand for immediate action