Northern Metals fire: MPCA air quality test results show no harmful chemicals

Early air quality test results from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency do not show signs of dangerous levels of chemicals following the massive fire at Northern Metals in Becker, Minnesota, according to the latest update from the Becker Police Department.

The fire has been burning at the facility since early Tuesday morning.

MPCA tested air samples taken Thursday. Results showed the air makeup of the sample sites around Northern Metals is similar to air around the state that was not downwind from the fire. This test was a more comprehensive test than the ones taken earlier in the week by the emergency response team because the MPCA's test was able to check for more chemicals.

"Initial results received Friday afternoon show nothing unusual in terms of types and levels of (Volatile Organic Compounds) found," according to the Minnesota Department of Health, which analyzed the MPCA's test data.

Officials are still awaiting results for lead levels in the impacted area.

Friday, MPCA staff set up four more monitors for particulate matter. These devices put out real-time data and so far, officials are not seeing concerning levels. The MPCA will not be doing any additional air monitoring.

Officials, however, are planning to take samples of ash and other residues that may have fallen in nearby areas.

A private company hired by Northern Metals has now taken over the firefighting effort at the facility. The fire is now just a few smoldering spots. Officials say the fire could be completely extinguished over the weekend. Water runoff from the firefighting effort has been contained and will be sampled.

After canceling school Thursday, Becker Public Schools were back in session Friday. For Amanda Wiggins, who lives just outside Becker with her family, says the fire has been concerning. Her daughter has respiratory issues.

"[Northern Metals] may not have been at fault in the sense they probably didn’t go out and light the fire, but were their actions stockpiling, getting crap all over the place was that a contributing factor? I would lean towards yes,” said Wiggins.

An investigator from the State Fire Marshal's Office arrived Friday morning to begin an investigation into the fire.

Eventually, there will be assessments for potential evironmental impacts to surface waters, ground water and soils, according to authorities.

Full statement from Northern Metal Recycling chief operating officer Scott Helberg: 

“We are grateful for the extraordinary work performed by firefighters and law enforcement over the last several days. As a 10-year resident of Becker with children and grandchildren in the area, I understand and appreciate the concerns I’ve heard expressed this week.

“Northern Metals Recycling strongly objects to today’s contentions from the MPCA. The company worked closely with the MPCA to obtain all necessary permitting approvals.

“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.  We would particularly note that all of the recyclable metal subject to the fire was stored on impervious surfaces and all water from the firefighting efforts was contained on-site as part of our newly constructed storm water containment system.  Therefore, there does not appear to be any on or off-site soil and groundwater impacts.

“Once it is opened, this state-of-the-art fully enclosed shredding facility will employ 85 Minnesotans and set the benchmark for sustainability and environmental protection for the recycling industry in the state and the nation.

“Northern Metals Recycling will continue to be in close contact with state, county, city and federal officials regarding this incident and its cause, which remains under investigation.”