Minnesota regulators impose restrictions on Northern Metals after fire

The Northern Metals fire in Becker, Minn. rages two days after it started. ( Derek Baas )

Minnesota’s top pollution regulators ordered a Minneapolis recycling company to shut down some of its operations because of a massive fire that has burned for days in Sherburne County.

In its order, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency forced Northern Metals to stop accepting scrap metal at its facility in Becker until it creates a cleanup plan for environmental contamination caused by this week’s fire. In addition, the MPCA is preventing the company from stockpiling cars at its property in north Minneapolis after the state fire marshal found violations there.

Gov. Tim Walz, speaking at a forum organized by the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, said he was looking at additional ways to hold Northern Metals accountable for pollution caused by the fire.

"I have to be very careful as governor because they will sue me, but I do not trust this entity (Northern Metals) to do the right thing,” Walz said. 

Walz said he’s been briefed by the state fire marshal, MPCA, and state Department of Health twice in the past 48 hours about the fire, which forced local schools to cancel classes and sparked concerns about air quality in as many as eight counties.

The MPCA has ordered Northern Metals to stop using the metal shredder at its Becker facility until it has cleaned up fire damage and announces how it will deal with the cars that burned in this week’s inferno. The company will also have to tell regulators how it plans to safely stockpile cars and store other scrap metal in the future.

Regulators said the company did not have proper safeguards to protect the community in either Becker or Minneapolis.

The ongoing fire (in Becker) is an imminent and substantial danger to the health and welfare of the public,” MPCA officials wrote in the order. “The fire is discharging unknown particulate matter and gaseous chemicals into the air that affect Minnesota residents in the immediate vicinity of the Facility and up to as far as 50 miles away.”

The MPCA’s air quality monitoring has found no harmful chemicals in the air around Becker, the city’s police chief said in an emailed statement Friday afternoon. But sampling of the water and ash from the fire will continue.

“The way they tell me these, they are not healthy but they are not dangerous, which is not comforting at all when I heard that,” Walz said, “meaning folks that are in the general vicinity are not going to get sick. But we need to know, much like a (Sept. 11, 2001) situation, what did you breath in with hundreds of cars burning?”

Scott Helberg, Northern Metals’ chief operating officer, said in an emailed statement that the company “strongly objects” to the MPCA’s decision.

Northern Metals worked closely with regulators to obtain permitting approvals, Helberg said.

“To be clear: the Northern Metals Recycling facility in Becker has never been operational. The shredder has yet to be turned on and its installation is ongoing. Nevertheless, the facility is otherwise in strict compliance with all applicable requirements,” Helberg said.

Walz initially said Friday morning that his administration was considering a 30-day hold on the company’s permits, before MPCA clarified what was in its order.

State Sen. Andrew Mathews, who represents Becker, said in an emailed statement he expected the state would take “exhaustive efforts” to monitor the safety of the community.

"Northern Metals is fully cooperating with the state fire investigation, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, and their local public health officials," said Mathews, R-Milaca. "Businesses that require permitting should be allowed to immediately begin or resume operations once health and safety standards are assured and permit expectations are met.