We Get What We Organize For: Smith Foundry Update 





Smith Foundry is an iron foundry that manufactures iron castings in the East Phillips neighborhood of South Minneapolis. Smith began operations in 1923 but was purchased by Canadian private equity firm “Zynik Capital” in 2022. Holding the dubious distinction of being the largest emitter of lead in Hennepin County, little has changed inside the facility over the past century in regard to their unregulated iron furnace. But a dense and diverse urban neighborhood has grown up in East Phillips.

In May of 2023 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) did a surprise investigation of Smith that yielded alarming findings. After a bad wildfire smoke season, the community was notified, not through any regulatory oversight body, but through a Sahan Journal article that leaked the news. The EPA found that Smith had exceeded the EPA particulate matter emission limits by about double for 5 years, failed to maintain baghouse equipment designed to reduce pollution, did not have emission, inspection, nor maintenance records repeatedly violating the Clean Air Act. Regulatory agencies were silent until community members created an uproar that only intensified when Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) had the audacity to deny there was any evidence of a violation.

The EPA noted that particulate matter emissions contribute to decreased lung function, asthma, bronchitis, irregular heartbeat, heart attacks, and premature death. Lead emissions affect the nervous system, kidney function, immune system, reproductive and developmental systems, and the cardiovascular system. Children are especially sensitive to lead impacts on neurological function. East Phillips residents have known this for a long time, not because they are all credentialed in medical scholarship, but because they have the heartaches and medical bills to back it up. They have lived these harms and sometimes died from these harms. Parents and staff at Circulo de Amigos, a daycare down the block, have been demanding accountability. Little Earth of United Tribes, where about 90% of youth suffer from asthma, are right there with Circulo. Jolene Jones, founding member of Little Earth Protectors, says “Little Earth has been here for over 50 years and we have been raising the alarm about Smith Foundry since day one”.

Back in 1992, the MPCA issued Smith Foundry its most recent air pollution permit. The permit was effective for five years, but a state “permit shield” allowed the foundry to legally operate ever since. On April 30, 2024, the MPCA received Smith’s long awaited new permit application and the required cumulative levels and effects analysis, which is intended to account for the combined effects of current and past pollution on the health of residents. Smith conveniently omitted sufficient information for the MPCA to determine how pollution generated by Smith Foundry will impact the community. Smith was rewarded with even more time to stall, which has been the playbook between Smith and MPCA for decades.

Smith Foundry employs about 40 workers who bear some of the greatest harms. In early April 2024 the Minnesota Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MNOSHA) found that Smith improperly exposed its employees (represented by Teamsters local 970) to crystalline silica and carbon monoxide. Smith failed to provide proper safety equipment or information about exposure to their own workforce. While this violation carried a negligible $15,300 fine, the continued poisoning of children at Circulo and Little Earth remains priceless.

EPA requires metal foundries with metal productions over 20,000 tons per year to capture and monitor emissions from their furnace. Smith, at 5,000 tons, is too small to be legally required by the EPA to test and mitigate their furnace. Braun Intertec, a consultant for Smith Foundry, recommended that MPCA delay any required testing of furnace emissions until a capture and control system is installed. Until June 3rd, 2024, Smith had been “committed” to installing this control system for the emissions from their furnace. This is the same kind of capture and control system that Smith’s former owners promised the community in 1995.

Instead of holding their breath, community members have pursued the legislative tactic of “amortization”. Amortization is the process by which municipalities can phase out businesses that are nonconforming with current zoning laws. Courts have long upheld amortization as a constitutional aspect of city zoning authority. Yet, under current Minnesota statutes, a city can only amortize adult-only businesses or criminal nuisances. Advocates argue that amortization should apply to these neighborhood foundries that are far more deadly than a mere nuisance or moral distraction. Oppositional lobbying at the Capitol, characterizing the bill’s impacts on business as complicated and uncertain, led to the failure of this amortization bill in the 2024 legislative session.

Turning Points

But as the adage goes “we get what we organize for”. Members of Twin Cities DSA have been organizing in the Shut Down Smith Coalition with East Phillips Neighborhood Institute (EPNI), its East Phillips Health Team, East Phillips Improvement Coalition (EPIC), Climate Justice Committee, Little Earth Protectors, Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA), Circulo de Amigos, and others to put a stop to this recalcitrant polluter. Finally, we are starting to see some results.

On June 3rd, the EPA announced their settlement with Smith Foundry over their Clean Air Act violations. Now, instead of the decades-long dance between MPCA and Smith where they deny violations, obfuscate evidence, elongate the permitting process, and torpedo protective legislation, there is finally a date set to close the iron furnace for good.

According to the agreement with EPA, within the next 12 months, the company will shut down its furnace and casting processes and convert to a metal finishing facility, which will drastically reduce air emissions. The foundry will also pay an $80,000 penalty. Under the terms of the settlement, Smith Foundry will:

  • Immediately shut down two of the foundry’s pouring and cooling lines.
  • Limit the total amount of liquid metal poured at the remaining lines to 2884 tons before they are shut down.
  • Permanently shut down the furnace, all remaining pouring/cooling lines, all mullers, and the shakeout system within the next 12 months.

While this is a monumental step forward compared to how the community has been blithely ignored for decades, it is still far from a victory. Immediately following this announcement, MCEA, EPNI, and Little Earth Protectors issued a statement that noted “The settlement allows a year for the factory to transition its operations to a metal finishing facility. The Shut Smith Coalition calls for the furnace, metal and pouring operations to be shut down immediately as the pollution from the casting operations remains uncontrolled and poses a daily risk to the community.” Further critiques of the settlement have been shared by members of the East Phillips Health Team noting that one year of uncontrolled emissions might seem like a blip to Zynik Capital, but in terms of an infant’s brain development, one year can be a lifetime of harm. The $80,000 settlement equals about $3.20 per East Phillips resident per year of their violations, but the residents won’t be seeing a single penny for the harms they endured.

The many rallies, press conferences, petitions, health fairs, phonebanks, publications, and other forms of agitation on this issue has also led to a surprising new possibility for environmental protection in Minnesota. On May 21st, Governor Walz signed a bill granting MPCA new, wide-ranging authority to shut down pollution sources that are harming people’s health. When this law becomes effective on July 1st, 2024, MPCA will have the power to order pollution reductions and even shut down a facility immediately when it has substantial permit violations or there’s evidence of danger to people’s health, or harm to the environment.  This represents a drastic change from their mantra of “I’m sorry, there is nothing we can do”.

Let’s Keep Organizing, Let’s Keep Winning

The Environmental Justice movement in East Phillips has been facing off with the ruling class of billionaire developers, private equity firms, and their centrist DFL referees, and we are getting real results. Together, we soundly defeated the city’s Hiawatha Expansion Project, Bituminous Roadways is closing its doors, and now the Smith Foundry iron furnace is shutting down.

Now is the time to make MPCA use these new oversight powers to close Northern Metals, St Paul Brass foundry, and others.

The better world that we know we all deserve is not merely about taking power away from the ruling class, however. It is about creating the community-driven, community-owned society that serves community needs.

  • Join us on Wednesday, June 12th 6-8pm at the East Phillips Community Center to learn about the Smith Foundry settlement and connect with the coalition groups organizing for this EJ win.
  • Attend a joint art build on June 15 from 2-4 pm at Spill Paint Not Oil where we will build relationships between groups organizing against the different metal foundries in the Twin Cities.
  • Mark your calendars now for September 21st for an event at the Roof Depot to celebrate the new ownership of the Roof Depot, and this radical community vision that is has become a local symbol of working-class power.

By Michael W