Health concerns follow report of poor air quality in North Minneapolis

(Photo courtesy of Murphy News Service)

Two air monitors near an industrial area of North Minneapolis have recorded potentially harmful levels of particles and heavy metals in the air, according to a new analysis from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

The agency has previously recorded violations of the state standard for air particles just to the west of the Lowry Avenue Bridge, and now the monitors have detected high levels of lead in the area. Minnesota Department of Health environmental health manager James Kelly said the report’s results do not present short-term risks, but the findings could present problems down the road.

“We are concerned about the overall impact on air quality in this area and the potential for harm over the long term, particularly for those who work in the immediate area,” Kelly said.

Respiratory irritation, lung damage, and cancer are among the possible health effects that poor air quality can bring, and lead in the air can cause cardiovascular problems in adults and developmental disorders in children. Kelly said that until the MPCA and Occupational Health and Safety Administration decide on appropriate responses, those who live and work nearby can only hope for the best and talk to their physicians if they have concerns.

“We haven’t made any specific recommendations for residents,” he said. “There’s not a whole lot for people to do.”

MPCA spokesman Ralph Pribble said health concerns are higher for workers and others in the immediate vicinity than for most residential areas. Lead and other metals are heavy, so they do not travel very far. But some neighborhoods around the industrial area are already dealing with high rates of elevated blood lead levels in children for other reasons, Kelly said.

“The older housing stock in this area, which often has lead paint, is the major source of exposure to lead,” Kelly said. “However, any additional sources of lead exposure should be taken seriously.”

Until recently, the MPCA had not been able to compare its information against health standards because the agency had not collected the requisite one year’s worth of data. One monitor was installed in October 2014 and the second in June 2015, so this analysis was the first one using the monitors’ data.

One of the potential pollution sources, a Northern Metal Recycling facility, sits between the two air monitors. Northern Metal asked a judge last June to end the monitoring and block an MPCA order to test for emissions compliance in exchange for time to move its shredder out of the metro to an area with fewer environmental restrictions.

MPCA enforcement records show Northern Metal was fined in 2010 for violating air-quality permit standards. The company then argued that it couldn’t meet the pollution limits. In 2012 Northern Metal proposed amendments to change some of the permit terms and conditions, and the MPCA determined there were “no potential significant environmental effects reasonably expected to occur” from the changes. The agency declined to issue an environmental impact statement.

The loosened standards received some backlash from environmental groups, the city of Minneapolis, and even the U.S. Department of the Interior. In the MPCA analysis, Assistant Commissioner David Thornton said the company may have submitted inaccurate information during the permitting process or added new emissions sources without notifying the agency. Northern Metal did not return calls seeking comment, but its website says its shredder is a state-of-the-art installation and environmentally the cleanest in North America.

Pribble said the MPCA has been working with about seven other potential emissions sources, including metal recycler Alliance Steel and roofing manufacturer GAF. The agency has been examining their processes and asking them to voluntarily adhere to standard practices that can prevent harmful emissions. Some of those may include addressing so-called “fugitive” sources, which can be as simple as dust blowing off a stockpile.

“The larger ones we know about because they are point sources,” Pribble said. “But if a business has stockpiles of material there are things they can do to reduce their impact. As of Tuesday, none of the source businesses had agreed to the voluntary practices.

“If we don’t get what we need to have happen, maybe something more will be necessary,” Pribble said.

Mayor Betsy Hodges expressed outrage upon learning about the air quality report in one of the city’s “most overburdened neighborhoods.”

“For too long, the health of our residents, including our children, has been determined by their ZIP code,” Hodges said. “I urge the MPCA to act swiftly to confirm the source of the lead particulate emissions and take the strongest possible action, up to and including revoking permits and shutting down operations completely.”

For now, the MPCA will continue to monitor pollutants until concentrations are reduced to comply with state guidelines and the federal Clean Air Act.


Thanks to Andrew Heiser and Murphy News Service for sharing this story with us.