Steam rises from an exhaust vent during operating hours at the Smith Foundry in south Minneapolis on November 2, 2023. Credit: Aaron Nesheim | Sahan Journal

A metal foundry in Minneapolis’ East Phillips neighborhood repeatedly violated the federal Clean Air Act by failing to control dangerous pollutants, according to filings from the Environmental Protection Agency. 

Smith Foundry, an iron metal processing plant on East 28th Street in south Minneapolis, violated the Clean Air Act nine ways between 2018 and 2023, the EPA found after conducting a surprise inspection of the facility earlier this year. The foundry regularly emitted nearly twice the amount of air pollution allowed by state permits, failed to properly maintain equipment designed to reduce pollution, and did not notify the state about equipment failures as required. 

According to a city of Minneapolis report, the foundry is a major source of airborne lead and particulate matter, which are tiny particles of various pollutants that are easily inhaled. Copies of the EPA filings obtained by Sahan Journal show that the amounts of those substances that the foundry emitted were well over permitted levels, endangering people nearby and the environment. 

East Phillips is considered an environmental justice neighborhood due to demographics and income metrics. Around 75 percent of residents there are people of color, according to demographer Minnesota Compass. The neighborhood, home to highways and industrial sites like Smith Foundry dating to redlining zoning policies in the 20th Century, has some of the worst health outcomes in Minnesota, state data show. The area was largely declared a federal Superfund site in 2007, which stemmed from a now-defunct arsenic factory adjacent to the Roof Depot site. 

For neighborhood residents, the federal findings confirm longtime fears and raise questions about why the facility was allowed to continue operating after the EPA sent an August 15 letter to Smith Foundry notifying them of the violations. 

“It’s appalling,” community member Joe Vital said. “Why was this allowed to happen?” 

Residents have long shared stories of returning home after being out of town, and finding a thin layer of black dust on their homes. They’ve also noticed an orange hue in the air when the foundry is running, Vital said. While he’s glad to see EPA take action, Vital said he thinks officials should have communicated to East Phillips residents about the violations. He said a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) employee mentioned the violations to residents for the first time last week at a community meeting about an unrelated issue. 

Excessive amounts of lead and particulate matter pollution documented at Smith Foundry can lead to respiratory issues like chronic bronchitis and asthma, heart disease, and developmental and neurological conditions for babies and children, who are particularly vulnerable to those pollutants, according to the EPA. 

A spokesperson for the EPA declined to comment on the violations due to the ongoing enforcement process. 

Smith Foundry has operated since 1923. It melts an average of 20 tons of metal each day and generally runs from 5 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, according to the EPA report. It was purchased by Zynik Capital, a Canadian investment firm, in December 2022. 

Staff at Smith Foundry deferred Sahan Journal’s questions about the EPA findings to Zynik Capital, which did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday. 

Uncontrolled pollution

Smith Foundry’s violations were discovered during an unannounced inspection from the EPA on May 26 that documented several issues with mitigation equipment and facility practices. That visit came after state inspectors with the MPCA documented elevated levels of particulate matter pollution outside of the facility in October 2022 and April 2023. 

Federal inspectors found that Smith Foundry failed to maintain properly operating baghouses, which are small structures stuffed full of filters intended to absorb dangerous pollutants. State and federal permits require companies to regularly document the performance and maintenance of baghouses, but inspectors found that Smith Foundry failed to keep records for a nearly five-year period. 

In 2019, Smith Foundry reported to the MPCA that one of their baghouses malfunctioned, resulting in uncontrolled emissions. The EPA found multiple baghouse performance issues in 2020 and 2021 that Smith Foundry failed to report to state authorities. 

At the EPA inspection in May, regulators found that one of the baghouses had zero pressure drop, which means it wasn’t functioning at all—like a vacuum cleaner with no filter. Federal inspectors also documented air pollution leaking unfiltered into the street through open windows. 

“Any amount of lead is dangerous, and what they’re talking about in these violations is uncontrolled lead pollution,” said Evan Mulholland, an environmental lawyer with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. 

Smith Foundry in south Minneapolis, pictured on November 2, 2023, has been cited by the Environmental Protection Agency for violations of the Clean Air Act. Credit: Aaron Nesheim | Sahan Journal

The EPA violations report also shows that from 2018 to 2023, Smith Foundry regularly emitted double the amount of particulate matter it was allowed to under state permits. 

The EPA is beginning to carry out more inspections in environmental justice neighborhoods under the Biden Administration, according to Mulholland. But the surprise visit to Smith Foundry is a significant step, he said. 

“This is the EPA coming in unannounced. The feds don’t do too many surprise inspections,” Mulholland said.

Action steps

The EPA is pursuing a civil enforcement action against Smith Foundry, according to an EPA spokesperson. Civil enforcement cases can result in cash settlements paired with consent decrees, fines, and supplemental environmental projects that a violator completes to provide tangible public health benefits to an impacted area. 

Smith Foundry was given 30 days to reply to the findings and hold a conference with the EPA, according to a letter sent to the company on August 15. 

The foundry is regulated by the MPCA, and is among the 123 facilities that will come under the new cumulative impact law, which seeks to increase regulation on polluting facilities in environmental justice neighborhoods. Smith Foundry has a permit application pending with the state that requests the ability to continue operating. The MPCA reviewed the permit application and is waiting for more information on the company’s plans to reduce emissions, which it expects to receive early next year, an MPCA spokesperson said via email. 

Vital said members of the community are wondering what the repercussions will be for Smith Foundry. He hopes officials will hold meetings with neighbors to talk about the process. 

“I’m happy there’s finally evidence to show the appalling conditions the people of East Phillips are forced to live in,” Vital said. 

Andrew Hazzard is a reporter with Sahan Journal who focuses on climate change and environmental justice issues. After starting his career in daily newspapers in Mississippi and North Dakota, Andrew returned...