Thanks to industry and rail, life in Northeast comes with pollution and smells

Matthew Hegge and his wife are trying to sell their house in Northeast Minneapolis. It’s a little difficult, though, when you don’t want to let the “fresh” air in.

“The Realtor® says, ‘You should leave the windows open when you leave,’” says Hegge, who has lived in their house since 2007. But he says that’s impossible, not with the smell they’ve been getting this summer.

It’s an asphalt-smell. A little like diesel, a little like railroad ties or oil. Sulphurous, too. And Hegge, a member of the citizen group Concerned Citizens of Marshall Terrace, says other people are noticing this smell, as well. “It is an issue with other people as well. We’re not crazy,” he laughs.

As a historical center of manufacturing for the Twin Cities, Northeast always emits a few funny smells here and there. But the smells this summer have been more consistent, strong enough to the point where Hegge’s wife deals with congestion and problems with her breathing. She doesn’t have asthma, but the smells get to be too much. That’s why they close the windows—that way, the odors won’t linger.

Finding the Source

Hegge points out that Northeast has long dealt with environmental problems from manufacturers. There’s the metal finishing plant, the waste yards, the railroads, the printing shop, each with their own particular odor. And there was the coal-fired Riverside Generating Plant, before Xcel converted it to natural gas. That switch removed a lot of air pollution from Northeast, says Hegge, but a lot still remains. And that doesn’t even touch on the Superfund legacy of places such as Shoreham Yards, near 29th and Central, where on-site pollution will never be fully eradicated, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

“We love the neighborhood,” he says, “but...I almost look forward to not being in that area, so many industry quality-of-life issues when it comes to air quality and noise. It needs some attention.”

That’s where the City of Minneapolis comes in. Patrick Hanlon, environmental initatives manager for the city, says they’ve gotten a lot of 311 complaints around these asphalty smells over the years. They’ve come from all over, and he mentions the Owens Corning shingle plant in south Minneapolis as a repeat offender.

As for the latest asphalty smells in Northeast? “It’s pretty reasonable to assume it’s coming from GAF,” says Hanlon.

GAF Building Materials Corporation has a plant in North Minneapolis, just above the Lowry Bridge. According to its LinkedIn profile, GAF was founded in 1886. It is a $3 billion company with 3,200 employees and is the nation’s largest roofing manufacturer. GAF, despite phone and email inquiries, was unable to be reached for comment at the time of this article’s publication.

When the city receives what they term as a “nuisance odor” complaint, they go to the site of the complaint and take out their air quality instruments, either a “Nasal Ranger” or a photoionization detector. Both tools register, objectively, the amount of volatile organic compounds in the air. If there are more VOC’s than allowable, then they can issue a citation for the erring company. In Northeast, however, nobody has been over these odorous limits.

“I can understand why it’s been frustrating for the people in North and Northeast Minneapolis,” says Hanlon. “It’s been frustrating for us, as well, as we’re trying to enforce on this issue.”

He says the city has worked with the MPCA, having them inspect GAF’s pollution control equipment. But the company, according to the agency, has met all state air quality standards.

In comparison, at the Owens Corning shingle plant, a facility similar to GAF’s where the MPCA regularly takes samples from an air quality monitoring station, the agency hasn’t registered any VOC violations.

Brent Rohne, MPCA air quality inspector, said in a followup email that his agency last conducted an inspection of GAF Corp in October, 2013. They found one violation due to a lack of “a permanently submerged fill pipe, floating roof, vapor recovery system or equivalent.” GAF fixed the issue and in July, the MPCA absolved the violation. Rohne says, other than that, the company hasn’t had any air quality enforcements on it in the last few years.

Part of the issue, says Hanlon, isn’t technology. For a large city, they have pretty sophisticated tools for air quality, with the MPCA and the city taking regular air samples and the city responding to complaints, but they may need to start detecting semivolatile organic compounds in addition to VOC’s. He says the MPCA has already started on this.

VOC’s are organic compounds that easily become vapors or gases, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. They are common air pollutants, and examples include everything from common household products such as gasoline and glue, to chemicals from large-scale emitters such as chemical manufacturers. Their toxicity varies depending on the compound, with some such as benzene being a known human carcinogen. Semivolatile organic compounds are compounds still evaporate easily, just a little less so than VOC’s.

Another issue is just the air: Gases and smells become dispersed easily. Though Hanlon says they’ve definitely smelled Northeast lately, sometimes the smell goes away too quickly.

He recalls that there was once a woman who called him at midnight to register a complaint. “Get in my car and drive out there, by the time I got there, [the smell] was already gone,” says Hanlon. “There was a big emission at one point. It’s really hard to enforce when it’s really intermittent like that.”

Bringing it all back home

Emails from Northeast residents have notified the Northeaster of the latest odors. Hegge, among the residents, says there’s a new smell in the neighborhood, not the sulphurous, tar-based smell suspected from GAF, but another that was strong enough to make him close the windows again. Another resident, who asked not to be named, said that his neighbors suspected the railroad was behind that smell. Still, nobody was sure where it was coming from.

And another resident, at Marshall Terrace Park with her little girl, reported a strong odor at 4 p.m. on July 24. Concerned for her child’s health, she made reports to the city’s 311 line and the MPCA.

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Matthew Grimley's picture
Matthew Grimley