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Two Environmental Agencies at Odds Over Pollution Violations in East Phillips Neighborhood

MINNEAPOLIS — Two environmental agencies are at odds over pollution violations in a Twin Cities neighborhood. The EPA found that Smith Foundry in south Minneapolis violated the Clean Air Act.

But the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency questions its methods.

Neighbors say they’ve raised health concerns about the factory for years. WCCO investigative reporter Jennifer Mayerle went to the MPCA to try and get answers.

Smith Foundry is the source of community outrage following an unannounced inspection by the Environmental Protection Agency. It discovered air pollution violations along with other problems that “could endanger human health or the environment.”

WCCO took the concerns to the MPCA and assistant commissioner over air and climate policy Frank Kohlasch.

“They are required to meet and comply with their permit requirements and in Minnesota rules to ensure that their emissions are not causing any problems for neighborhoods or for the environment around,” Kohlasch said.

Mayerle asked if that’s been happening.

“To the information we have, to the best of our knowledge, it has been happening. We have been monitoring in the East Phillips neighborhood for a number of years.” Kohlash went on to say, “We are not seeing any state or federal violation on an air quality standard from this facility,” Kohlasch said.

The state says it’s monitored air quality from 11 blocks away since 2001. We’re told it’s conducted other air monitoring at various times since then. But its last actual regular inspection was five years ago.

“It seems concerning to me that you wouldn’t have done an inspection since 2018. That’s a lot of years,” Mayerle said.

“We do have limited inspection resources available to us. We negotiate with EPA about how we’re going to deploy those inspection resources,” Kohlasch said.

There are 8 inspectors for 2000 plus permitted companies. It raises questions about the frequency of inspections and if the state is asking for enough information to find a problem.

The state relies on self-reporting.

The MPCA says the EPA requested additional data for their report. Finding since 2018, Smith Foundry was emitting roughly twice the allowed amount of particulate pollution.

The EPA says that can cause things like coughing, difficulty breathing, asthma, chronic bronchitis, irregular heartbeats, nonfatal heart attacks and more.

The EPA and MPCA knew about the notice of violations months before the community learned about them.

Mayerle asked why there aren’t more answers right now.

“That’s a great question. And we know it’s a challenging situation to be in,” Kohlasch said.

Kohlasch says the information generally stays confidential until the company has a chance to respond. And there are more definitive answers.

“It honestly feels like more leeway is being given to the company than the community. That the company has all the time to go back and forth but the community is left in the dark during that time,” Mayerle said.

“That is a challenge with the system. That is the way the system is set up,” Kohlasch responded.

“That’s why I’m asking, should the system change?” Mayerle said.

“That is a great question. I think it’s beyond my ability to respond now,” Kohlasch said.

The looming question: What was the East Phillips community exposed to and for how long?

Ultimately Kohlasch says MPCA is not able to replicate the emission violations found by the EPA.

“We would be concerned if somebody is emitting more pollution than is allowed in their permit. That would be concerning to us. Right now we just can’t validate what EPA has in their notice,” Kohlasch said.

The EPA told WCCO it stands by its report and will keep working with the state and Smith Foundry. 

The MPCA says the factory’s new permit will be stricter, requiring new controls, an expiring permit, and an annual community meeting.

Neighbors have also raised concerns about the asphalt company next door, Bituminous Roadways.

The state says it will leave the area by the end of 2025.

Bituminous told WCCO that mounting city and community pressure coupled with upcoming regulatory requirements coinciding with Smith Foundry’s new permit made it the right time to look for a new location.

You can learn more at a community meeting on Monday from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at the Phillips Community Center.

The EPA and representatives from Smith Foundry are also expected to be there.

Here’s the EPA’s full statement:

“At this time, EPA believes that the emissions and allowable rates shown in its notice of violation are correct, and does not have any reason to modify the information in the notice. We will continue to talk with MPCA and Smith Foundry to understand their positions. Regarding the statement in EPA’s notice of violation that ambient air concentrations of particulate matter were “elevated,” this is in the context of Smith Foundry allowing “avoidable amounts of particulate matter to become airborne.” EPA stated that measured concentrations were above background concentrations, showing that the site had caused particulate to become airborne.

“Consistent with EPA’s enforcement policy, we cannot provide specific information on any ongoing investigations in Minnesota including how EPA selects facilities to inspect, the process leading up to the inspection, or next steps in the investigation. EPA maintains collaborative partnerships with state agencies and will continue to work with MPCA on next steps.”

Source: CBS News