High levels of airborne particles in north Minneapolis worry locals

High levels of airborne particles have been a problem for years in north Minneapolis, but a new report is causing concern even after a large metal scrap yard in the area came to an agreement with the state on how to improve air quality in the neighborhood. 

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency last Tuesday found airborne particle levels there above a federal standard, marking the third time unsafe levels have been measured in north Minneapolis since monitoring began in 2014. Another instance last Friday nearly broke the mark but ultimately stayed just under, leaving officials to wonder what exactly is going wrong.

"This is not the type of air you want to be breathing for an extended area of time," said Frank Kohlasch, a spokesperson for the MPCA. 

Just a year ago, the Fox 9 Investigators found dangerous levels of lead in the air outside Northern Metals Recycling--which sits right next door to the north Minneapolis neighborhood in which children show the second highest level of lead concentrations in the state. 

Around the same time, Northern Metals came to a settlement with the MPCA which required the company to make improvements and reduce their impact--though last week's findings make it clear that many of the problems continue despite the company's best efforts.

Agency officials said that weather may be at least partially to blame for the increased particulate levels this spring, with strong winds and rapid spring warming leaving debris from melting snow on roadways and in the air. 

Northern Metals, for its part, says it's using sweepers and sprayers to keep up its end of the bargain made last year. They're also attempting to move the company's shredding facility to a new location in Becker, which officials say may mitigate some of the issues.

Other companies are also working to follow suit.

“We’ve identified what we believe are the major industrial sources and have been working with all of them to secure binding agreements to reduce their contribution,” MPCA Assistant Commissioner David Thornton said.  "Of the 10 facilities the MPCA has worked with, five ... have signed voluntary agreements to take extra measures to reduce dust from handling materials in open air and sweeping streets to minimize dust from truck traffic."

If things don't improve soon, however, the MPCA says it may look to the Environmental Protection Agency to pursue enforcement.

"We’ve talked to these companies, we’ve warned them what can happen if we have one more day of these very high levels," Kohlasch said. "We’re going to be in a position where the federal government may take interest and we have to take more action."