INVESTIGATORS: Something in the air?

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It is a mystery that has surrounded Northern Metals Recycling for nearly two decades: What precisely is being emitted into the air by the metal shredding operation? 

Even after two years of litigation with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency that led to a consent decree that required the metal shredding operation to be shut down by August 2019, the answer can be elusive.

The company turns trash into money, by sorting and shredding scrap metal next to the Mississippi River. Northern Metals, as it's known, plans to relocate its shredding operation to Becker, Minnesota.

“We had difficulty with Northern Metals from the get-go,” said Sarah Kilgriff, who manages enforcement of air quality compliance for the MPCA. 

Kilgriff said the decision to allow Northern Metals to continue operating for more than two years was a compromise. 

"If we had continued to battle Northern Metals in the court system, it could have gone on for a much more lengthy time frame,” said Kilgriff. 

Northern Metals sued the MPCA two years ago when the agency installed two air quality monitors, on either side of the scrap yard.

Those monitors showed elevated lead concentrations, the second highest recorded in the state, at 80 percent of the federal air standard. The results were averaged out over a three-month period, with spikes that came close, but never quite exceeded the federal standard.

Even though the air monitors are located right next door to Northern Metals, the MPCA said it can’t definitively say the company is the source of lead or other airborne particulates. The agency said air pollution could be coming from a dozen other businesses in the immediate area. 

“We're working very hard in this area to determine the sources of pollution and to reduce those emissions," said Kilgriff.

Northern Metals COO Scott Helberg declined an on-camera interview, but told the Fox 9 Investigators he questioned what other sources or industries might be contributing to the air quality. He also said the MPCA has singled out Northern Metals for scrutiny, but not six other metal shredders operating in Minnesota. 


Just across I-94 from Northern Metals, children in the Hawthorne Neighborhood have the second highest level of lead found in their blood. Of 427 children in Hawthorne tested, 46 had elevated levels.

"That neighborhood is one of the highest in the state for elevated blood levels,” said Stephanie Yendell, an epidemiologist with the Minnesota Health Department. "That means about 10.8 percent of those children six years old or older had a high blood level above five micrograms a deciliter.”

Five micrograms a deciliter is the current federal standard for toxic lead exposure. And it means one in ten children are being affected by lead exposure.

Dr. Zeke McKinney, from HealthPartners, is an expert in environmental medicine. But the issue is also personal; he grew up in north Minneapolis.

"It turns out, physiologically, kids absorb lead way differently than adults. The amount that would harm a child is much, much less that would harm an adult," said McKinney.  “In particular, growing up in Minneapolis and seeing an area medically underserved very much was an impetus to be a physician.”

According to census data, Hawthorne is also one of the poorest neighborhoods in the state. Also, poverty is mainly correlated with higher lead levels; it's believed to be due to lead paint in older homes.

“People who have lower incomes have less control over where they live and they tend to live in older buildings and near interstates and therefore a higher exposure to lead," said Dr. Hannah Lichtsinn from HealthPartners.


You can check the lead levels in your neighborhood or county in Minnesota. The Minnesota Health Department recently tabulated data from 64,000 blood samples from children under six years of age with census data to construct an interactive map.

Click here to view the map.


According to a long term study published recently in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), 11-year-olds who tested for lead at five micrograms a deciliter were found to have lower IQ scores 25 years later, well into their late 30's.

The study concludes lead exposure could be a factor in lower income and fewer job opportunities, that lead, itself, may perpetuate poverty, creating a vicious cycle.

Hawthorne neighborhood resident, Lanika Harris said her family’s home tested negative for lead, but her nephew still tested positive for lead.

"If I could move to a different area I’d be there," she said.

McKinney believes the deal struck with Northern Metals, a known a polluter, would never fly in a wealthier zip code.

“In areas where individuals are more educated on issues like this - more wealth, more power, more influence - they wouldn't tolerate it at all," said McKinney. "This is why I'm a doctor. If I could do anything it's to go out and tell everyone to get tested."


The recommendation from pediatricians is that children under two living in Minneapolis and St. Paul should be tested for lead.


On Monday, the Minneapolis City Council’s Health Environment and Community Engagement committee heard from north side residents about the $2.5 million court settlement between Northern Metals and the MPCA. 

As part of that agreement, known as a consent decree, a civil penalty of $1 million will go to general state revenues. Other funds will cover attorney fees and testing costs.

The City of Minneapolis will receive $600,000 to cover testing for lead and childhood asthma, as well as education efforts in the affected neighborhoods.

“This is blood money,” said Nancy Przymus, of the Bottineau Neighborhood Association, which has been tracking Northern Metals for 25 years, back when it was known as American Iron. Bottineau, located in northeast Minneapolis, also has high concentrations of lead exposure and asthma.

“This money should be used to show what caused lead poisoning at such a high rate in the community,” Przymus said. 

She pointed out that no causal or correlational studies have ever been conducted.

Councilwoman Alondra Cano proposed a resolution that said, “The Near North area of Minneapolis has been subjected to environmental racism.” It also said the $1 million civil penalty should go to a project that serves the residents “who have borne the brunt of the negative impacts associated with the presence of Northern Metals near their communities.” 

Councilman Cam Gordon had a more pressing concern.

“I was disappointed to see it would stay in operation until 2019. Why did the judge give them to 2019?” Gordon asked a city staffer. 

Gordon was told only MPCA could answer the question, and a conflict prevented a spokesperson from attending the meeting.