The kids at Círculo de Amigos Child Care Center in south Minneapolis’ East Phillips neighborhood are enrolled in a nature based program intended to educate them about the world by exploring the outdoors daily.
But on many days, they check their air quality monitor and realize it’s not safe enough to bring the children outdoors, according to Tania Rivera, the daycare center’s program manager. The daycare is on Cedar Avenue, just around the corner from Smith Foundry, a metal plant where federal investigators found a host of pollution violations during a surprise inspection this past May.
Rivera knew the history of pollution in the neighborhood and felt the EPA investigation confirmed local suspicions about Smith Foundry, but said it’s hard to see her community hurt by pollution.
“It still continues to perpetuate,” she said.
The Environmental Protection Agency has an active enforcement action against Smith Foundry for finding that it violated nine statutes of the federal Clean Air Act, including failing to maintain pollution mitigation equipment, failing to control lead pollution, and emitting more than twice the amount of particulate matter allowed by the company’s state permit. Lead and particulate matter pollution have significant negative health impacts, particularly for children, according to the EPA.
That hasn’t stopped the foundry from seeking a new state permit to continue operations as state authorities scramble to address public fallout from the EPA findings. News of the violations prompted several dozen community members to protest outside the foundry, and some state lawmakers are now calling for legislative action next year to better protect Minnesotans.
East Phillips residents were unaware of the ongoing investigation at Smith Factory, which became public after the EPA filed its findings in August. Sahan Journal first reported on the EPA violations in early November, bringing the investigation to the public’s attention.
On November 6, days after Sahan’s report on the EPA violations, inspectors with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) made their own surprise visit to Smith Foundry and found its pollution mitigation equipment to be fully operational*, according to MPCA director of communications Andrea Cournoyer.
The state does not have access to the data the EPA used to make the determination that Smith Foundry violated the Clean Air Act, Cournoyer said.
The MPCA said it will be installing two more air monitors near Smith Foundry in the coming weeks to ensure that it’s operating within regulated levels.
Residents and elected officials from East Phillips are angry that it took a federal investigation to uncover the uncontrolled pollution at Smith Foundry, and say state regulators let the community down. Rivera, 33, joined neighbors and concerned citizens who protested outside the foundry on November 10 and called for its closure.
“You failed the people of East Phillips once again,” Rivera said of state regulators.
Smith Foundry, located on E. 28th Street near Longfellow Avenue, has operated for more than 100 years and is using a permit approved by the MPCA in January 1992. The permit, typed out via word processor and completed with handwritten notes, was supposed to be effective for five years.
But 31 years later, it remains in place. Smith Foundry has operated on an “application shield” since 1995 when it last submitted an application for a new permit, according to the MPCA. A application shield means facilities can’t be penalized for not operating with an updated permit, and essentially allowed Smith Foundry to continue under its 1992 permit until today. The facility can still be cited and fined for violations, as it was in 2005, and still is accountable to new rules that are implemented by state and federal law.
Smith Foundry is in the process of applying for a new air quality permit with the MPCA. That process has been ongoing since 2016, according to Cournoyer. The new permit will expire every five years, she said, and require a new application process.
“Smith intends to continue to operate and work with the MPCA and the community throughout this process,” said Blois Olson, a local public relations professional hired by the foundry.
Smith Foundry last performed a stack test, which directly samples for pollutants coming from mitigation equipment, in 1994, according to the EPA’s inspection report, which added that foundry staff told inspectors that conditions “haven’t changed that much.”
Much of the industrial equipment at the foundry dates to the 1970s and ‘80s, according to the EPA’s inspection.
Since the EPA inspection, Smith Foundry has completed work to address issues, company officials said in a statement. That includes changing all filters on baghouses (pollution mitigation structures), replacing ducts and hoses with cracks or holes, and putting new hoods on collection areas. The foundry is working with the EPA to complete emissions testing and is committed to meeting safety standards for its neighbors and workers, the statement said.
Smith Foundry officials said that the foundry does not process metals that contain lead, and believes it is an unlikely source of lead emissions.
Smith Foundry was purchased by Zynik Capital, a Canadian investment firm, in December 2022. The violations found by the EPA occurred from 2018 to May 2023.
In 2008, former local state Representative Karen Clark pushed through a bill that established East Phillips as the first environmental justice zone in Minnesota. The law stated that given the history of industrial pollution in the neighborhood and its diverse demographics, state regulators need to take extra care when approving an emissions permit or project that would add pollution in the area.
Smith Foundry is one of 123 state-regulated facilities that will fall under a new cumulative impact law passed this past legislative session that seeks to hold polluting industries in environmental justice areas to higher standards for new and expanding permit applications. The idea is to consider the effects of all pollution sources in a neighborhood when considering a permit, not just the impact from one facility.
The rulemaking process for the cumulative impact law is underway and expected to take years, but Smith Foundry will offer a preview of how it could be enforced due to the 2008 legislation, which also asks for a similar breakdown of environmental impacts for projects in the East Phillips neighborhood.
The reason Smith Foundry’s current permit application has been ongoing for seven years is that the facility and regulators are going back and forth over its cumulative impact analysis, according to the MPCA.
“These applications are really complicated,” Cournoyer said.
The MPCA said it will include a thorough cumulative impact analysis that examines environmental health concerns in the neighborhood as part of Smith Foundry’s current air quality permit application. The process will include opportunities for the public to comment, the MPCA said.
The agency said that a neighboring source of pollution, asphalt producer Bituminous Roadways, will be closing by the end of 2025. Bituminous Roadway became involved in Smith Foundry’s permit application during the cumulative impact process, the MPCA said.
Lawmakers demand accountability
Local officials expressed outrage at the foundry’s violations, and want answers from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency about why Smith Foundry has been allowed to operate on a 31-year-old permit in a neighborhood declared an environmental justice zone by state law.
“I am furious,” state Representative Aisha Gomez, DFL- Minneapolis, told Sahan Journal. “It’s just a resounding failure of our state’s regulators.”
Gomez said state lawmakers will need to consider hearings or tweaks to state laws during the 2024 legislative session to ensure that regulators are looking out for Minnesotans.
At the November 10 rally outside Smith Foundry, state Representative Hodan Hassan, DFL-Minneapolis, said she was ashamed that state lawmakers celebrated their environmental policy this year while Smith Foundry was spewing dangerous pollutants. She said the MPCA needs to be held accountable and needs to hold meetings with residents.
“It is vital we hold Smith Foundry accountable for its emissions violations and harm to the community – the health and wellbeing of the entire neighborhood hinges on it,” Hodan said in a statement.
The agency announced it will hold two community meetings about Smith Foundry and its pending permit. The first will be held at 5:30 p.m. November 27 at the Phillips Community Center, 2323 11th Ave S., Minneapolis. The second will be virtual on December 1 at 1 p.m.
“I acknowledge your frustrations around this facility and surrounding air quality, and I share your commitment to the community’s health,” MPCA Commissioner Katrina Kessler said in a statement announcing the meetings.
Representatives from Smith Foundry will participate in those meetings, Olson said.
Clark, the former state legislator who championed the 2008 bill making the neighborhood an environmental justice zone, was mad when she read about the EPA’s investigation.
“I couldn’t believe we didn’t get the information right away,” Clark said.
*Clarification: The November 6 MPCA inspection found Smith Foundry’s pollution mitigation equipment was operational. It did not make a determination on permit compliance.