Activists voice concerns in ongoing Smith Foundry investigation

People hold triangular yellow signs at a protest
Dozens of people gather outside the Smith Foundry in Minneapolis during a protest on Nov. 10, 2023.
Ben Hovland | MPR News 2023

Residents and climate activists in Minneapolis’ East Phillips neighborhood are continuing calls to shut down Smith Foundry, as regulators continue an investigation into pollution levels.

State and federal regulators said recent test data from Smith Foundry shows it’s operating within the rules set out in its permit. But local environmental activists are still calling for action against the iron foundry, since federal regulators noted violations of state and federal regulations last summer.

Officials will hold a meeting with community members Wednesday to give an update on the ongoing investigation of the foundry. Representatives from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the state and city health departments will speak to attendees.

Last May, the EPA did a surprise inspection at Smith Foundry. The agency found several problems with the site’s pollution control systems. According to its original reports, those problems resulted in elevated emissions of particulate matter and lead, in violation of the foundry’s permit.  

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Regulators are in the midst of an ongoing investigation of the foundry.  

The foundry passed a surprise inspection by the MPCA in November. In December, regulators contracted a third-party company to do additional testing at the facility. The company ran tests of the baghouses, the pollution filter equipment that regulators said wasn’t working properly back in May.

This time, the numbers show Smith Foundry’s particulate matter emissions are below their permitted levels. Regulators said the pollution filtration system was working as it should.

The test did detect lead emissions, which regulators and the foundry said were not high enough to be of concern.

“The results verify that Smith Foundry is compliant with its permit limits for particulate matter at those operations,” the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the EPA wrote in a joint statement. “While the tests detected lead emissions, the amounts were low.”

But local residents and activists said there’s still a lot of distrust in the foundry and in state and federal regulators. They’re calling for the foundry to be shut down.

Cassie Holmes works with the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute, a local environmental organization. She said she’s worried about the cumulative environmental impacts in the neighborhood. Since she learned that federal regulators found issues at the foundry, she doesn’t trust it to be safe. 

“We are upset,” Holmes said. “We want the foundry out of our neighborhood.” 

People hold signs outside a large building
Dozens of people gather outside the Smith Foundry in Minneapolis during a protest on Nov. 10, 2023.
Ben Hovland | MPR News 2023

While the foundry’s latest data is in compliance with its permit, some activists said they don’t think the current permit is strict enough to ensure that the foundry is safe for a residential neighborhood.  

Some areas of the facility aren’t filtered through its baghouses — instead, they vent straight out of the facility. Those emissions were not tested in December’s inspection, and the foundry’s current permit doesn’t require any filters in those areas.

The foundry is currently in the process of renewing its permit, which it secured in 1992. As part of the renewal process, the foundry will have to give state regulators updated pollution information.

Since the last time the foundry renewed its permit, the state has tightened the rules on pollution in South Minneapolis. A 2008 state law requires the MPCA to consider the cumulative impacts of past pollution in the neighborhood before issuing a permit.

According to a letter from foundry officials to regulators, the facility will need to add more pollution control equipment in order to get a new permit under the new requirements.

Evan Mulholland is a lawyer with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. He has been working with local organizers for the last several months. He said he’s worried about the facility operating now without that equipment.

“It doesn't make any sense to us,” Mulholland said. “I don’t understand why this is still allowed to operate.”

A man speaks into a mic
Evan Mulholland speaks during a protest outside the Smith Foundry in Minneapolis on Nov. 10, 2023.
Ben Hovland | MPR News 2023

At the last community meeting in November, local residents and activists gave passionate and emotional accounts of their fears around pollution.  

Concerned residents cited a context of environmental problems in East Phillips. The diverse neighborhood was home to a years-long EPA arsenic cleanup project beginning in 2004. It also sees worse-than-average health outcomes compared to the rest of the state. Asthma rates are higher in East Phillips than in surrounding ZIP codes, according to state data

Concerns about the foundry in particular stretch back several years, before new owners bought the site in December 2022. Neighbors said they’ve often noticed smoke and odors coming from the facility. It’s close to a daycare center and the Midtown Greenway bike path. 

“The community’s really, really angry and wants the foundry shut, period,” Mulholland said. “It just doesn’t belong where it is right now. There’s an apartment building, there’s residences, a daycare and the Greenway right there.” 

Smith Foundry said it’s working with regulators on the ongoing investigation. It has made repairs and equipment replacements since the EPA’s surprise inspection in May.

“Smith Foundry is meeting the state and federal standards for air quality,” Smith Foundry’s president Adolfo Quiroga said in a statement. “I want people to know that we are committed to ensuring clean air and providing people in Minneapolis, including the East Philips neighborhood, with well-paying, good union jobs.”

Regulators said they’ll continue updating the public throughout the investigation and permit process. The MPCA has installed community air quality monitors near the foundry and is keeping a web page up to date with information on the investigation. 

“The MPCA is committed to establishing an ongoing dialogue with the East Phillips community about our agency’s work in the neighborhood,” the agency said in a statement. “Our meeting on Wednesday will allow us to engage with many residents to share updates and information on a wide variety of topics, hear concerns, and answer their questions.”

The MPCA said it expects to get a complete permit application from the foundry in the next few months. The permit process will include several chances for public comment as it unfolds. Regulators and Smith Foundry said a final permit could be issued by the end of the year.