Northside residents’ fight for clean air against Northern Metal Recycling reaches tipping point  


“If Northern Metal was in Linden Hills, it would have been shut down quickly,” said North Minneapolis resident and mom Roxxanne O’Brien. “But apparently, we’re expendable up here.”

Since 2010, the Northern Metal Recycling plant, located on Washington Avenue in North Minneapolis, has been served citations and faced lawsuits for polluting the surrounding community with toxic metals like mercury and lead. Reports of declining health due to the poor air quality, and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) allowing for higher emissions led O’Brien and neighbor Ariah Fine to circulate the first petition demanding the plant be shut down.

“Every day our community smells foul,” said O’Brien. “I am close to the river. The air is horrible. I can see the smoke. Sometimes when we inhale, it hurts. I do my best to take very good care of my children, but I do feel like they have gotten sicker since I’ve moved into Barb Johnson’s ward near the plant.”

For Northside resident and mom Felicia Perry, the sentiment is similar.

“I have a 15-year-old son who has asthma, and it’s gotten worse since we bought our house in North [Minneapolis],” Perry said. Perry does everything she can to maintain a clean, allergen-free home, and keeps her son on regular medication. But still, at every doctor’s appointment, as her son’s condition worsens, she’s told she must be doing something wrong. Air pollutants in North Minneapolis create a constant struggle for Perry and her family.

“There is no rest in my mind,” she said. And the placement of environmental health hazards like Northern Metal is no coincidence.

“If burning [metal and] garbage wasn’t such a big deal, why aren’t we burning it in Edina?” Perry asked. “You put this in a poor population where we don’t have a lot of mobility. This is on purpose.”

O’Brien and Perry, both environmental justice activists, downplay their roles.

“I’m really just a mom who’s pissed off,” said Perry.


“I live here, I can’t leave”

One of the earliest recorded environmental justice movements traces back to 1982 in Warren County, North Carolina where low-income black residents organized to prevent the state government from hosting a toxic waste landfill in their backyards. They lost the battle, but their efforts induced a focus on environmentalism that acknowledged the role of institutionalized racism. The fight for environmental justice, especially in historically marginalized communities wages on today notably in cases of water poisoning like Flint, Michigan, and Standing Rock, North Dakota, and in airborne cases like North Minneapolis.

“I live here, I can’t leave,” O’Brien said, “if we don’t solve this, me and my kids suffer. My neighbors suffer. I’m accountable to my people.”

As a member of the Minneapolis Citizens Environmental Advisory Committee, O’Brien and her colleagues worked on an initiative that would address environmental issues with an equity lens by identifying the areas with the greatest need. In the early days, O’Brien felt that Minneapolis City Council members were not communicating well enough, and not taking this initiative seriously. She spent hours calling Council members, “sometimes cursing, sometimes raising [her] voice.” Eventually, the committee’s efforts turned into the Green Zones Work Group, a city-sponsored advisory board.

“I built a lot of relationships with politicians, and I don’t give anybody any slack. I hold people accountable,” said O’Brien. “Sometimes you have to put that tension we feel every day onto them. Then they do something. That’s what work looks like over here—you have to be on the phone with people all day…You can’t just allow people to destroy you and then be diplomatic about it. I don’t have the skill to be murdered slowly and then smile later…I can’t just ignore it.”


How the movement gained traction

After a 2012 court decision which allowed Northern Metal to operate with higher emissions, community activists like O’Brien and Perry have continued to educate their neighbors, host neighborhood meetings, circulate petitions, and urge their elected officials to take action. But it wasn’t until MPCA’s North Minneapolis Air Monitoring Project confirmed poor air quality in North Minneapolis earlier this year that established community organizations began to galvanize around this issue.

In June, Minneapolis-based Neighbors Organizing for Change (NOC) hosted an Environmental Justice Meeting after MPCA filed a motion for a temporary injunction to stop “activities at [Northern Metal] that are believed to be contributing” to violations in air quality emissions. This legal battle resulted in an eventual court order to shut down part of the plant in August, and a comment from MPCA that they were going to shift their focus to environmental justice activism. For many late followers, this action may have seemed swift – ignoring momentum built by local residents for almost five years. O’Brien worried that their organizing efforts were being exploited.

“I never saw [NOC] have an interest in [Northern Metal] until they saw us get some traction,” O’Brien said. But she does not necessarily fault community organizations like NOC for this, saying, “I think that’s a tactic in organizing. I think people pursue winnable goals because it can get them some sort of political power to get more money to build the organization. [But] I don’t want to get sucked into being used for my power,” O’Brien said. “I don’t do this work for the next grant cycle, our activism never ends.”

Last April, NOC brought on Janice Watts as their Environmental Justice Organizer. She says organizations like NOC can help to amplify residents’ concerns.

“Residents and community members that had been pushing for actions and accountability on Northern Metal by the MPCA for four years [made NOC take notice this summer],” Watts said. “When the MPCA came out with their report that Northern Metal was a site of pollution and decided to take legal action against them, NOC began to assert support and movement under our base to sound the alarm.”

Through organizing strategies to raise the public profile of Northern Metal with community meetings, social media, one-to-one conversations and neighborhood organizational partnerships, Watts said NOC and the residents helped to spread word that Northern Metal is a problematic facility in a more in depth way.


Bogged in bureaucracy, the work continues

This past summer, a Ramsey County judge ruled to shut down part of Northern Metal after reports showed the plant contributed to poor air quality in North Minneapolis. A decision to shut down the entire plant permanently is still pending.

In a statement to the Twin Cities Daily Planet, Jeff Smith, director of MPCA’s industrial division wrote, “It’s been a very challenging year for everybody. There are two separate, very complex actions that continue to work through the court systems. And while these are necessary steps to resolving the problem, they always seem to take longer than everyone would like. At this point, we don’t have a clear time frame for [resolution].”

“If the ruling does not go the way we want it to, then we will again engage the base that has led this fight from Day 1, and hope that we can come together with strategies to…push for major answers and changes to the systems like the permitting process, structure constraints and reparations for our impacted community,” said Watts. “No facility should be able to operate with these kinds of offenses.”

Moving forward, MPCA is hopeful. As Smith pointed out, “As confrontational as Northern Metal has been, it’s been very encouraging working with the other industrial facilities in the area. Nearly all have implemented voluntary measures around their sites to reduce dust and fugitive emissions. We’ve even had one facility, Alliance Steel, voluntarily enter into a formal agreement with us to ensure on-going measures to reduce emissions. We hope to complete a few more of the agreements in the next year.”

For O’Brien, the full extent of damage from places like Northern Metal has not even begun to unfold.

“We have [one of] the highest level of lead in the air in the state. People don’t make the connection on violence and lead. They’re sucking our health capital. We’re not going to be able to work. We’re not going to be able to take care of our kids. We’re not going to be able to deal with any disease or trauma. And then we’re expected to function like normal humans. We’re literally fighting for our lives,” O’Brien said.

Not only does exposure to lead have devastating effects on health and behavior, many residents including O’Brien believes that the high rates of foreclosures in the Hawthorne neighborhood near Northern Metal, can be blamed on the high medical costs from lead-related health problems.

Looking ahead, O’Brien wants to break down the silos in which residents, nonprofits and government agencies work in order to better attack the root cause of environmental injustice with a more unified approach.

“The real culprit is white supremacy and classism. Once you realize that, we can defeat the tactics of divide and conquer,” she said.

During the Minneapolis City Council meeting on Dec. 9, 2016, a motion was adopted that authorized the city attorney’s office to participate in settlement negotiations on the Ramsey County lawsuit as well as MPCA’s action to revoke Northern Metal’s operating permit. By doing so, the city can join as a party in one or both matters to “protect the City’s interests and facilitate settlement terms.”

A decision regarding both the Ramsey County case and Northern Metal’s operating permit is expected this month.

While it seems possible that the beginning of the end is in sight for Northern Metal, Perry and O’Brien continue to push for solutions to environmental injustices that benefit the whole community.

“[One discussed strategy] was a boycott of Northern Metal, but then someone mentioned that a lot of local small businesses make money by selling them their scrap. We need to find a creative way to hit the pockets of Northern Metal that doesn’t hit small businesses,” said Perry. “I hate that it keeps coming down to money, but it does.”