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Lawsuits between Minneapolis, environmental activists heat up as Roof Depot demolition nears

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The city of Minneapolis plans to tear down the former Roof Depot warehouse in the East Phillips neighborhood next month to make way for a new water infrastructure maintenance yard. Neighborhood environmental activists, who have been fighting the plans for nearly a decade, hope a judge will grant them a temporary restraining order before the bulldozers come.

Should that happen, the city wants the neighborhood activists to pay for it. In a district court hearing on Thursday morning, city attorneys asked Judge Edward Wahl to impose a bond of $4.5 million to offset the costs of delaying the city’s project.

Barbara O’Brien, the city’s director of Property Services, estimated escalating construction costs of $175,000 to $250,000 per month of delay.

“Those are real costs and those costs are borne by the city, the city residents’ tax dollars. They have to pay for those costs. ” said Assistant City Attorney Mark Enslin during the hearing.

Under state law, the party asking for a temporary injunction must post a bond for the payment of potential damages if the opposing party ultimately prevails on the merits of the underlying lawsuit. But East Phillips activists argue that $4.5 million is an unreasonably high sum that they will not be able to afford. For comparison, in the lawsuit temporarily suspending Minneapolis’ 2040 Comprehensive Plan, the district court asked a separate coalition of environmental groups to post a bond of $10,000.

Rallying in the falling snow outside City Hall after the hearing, they blamed the city for racking up excessive development costs on a contentious project.

The city of Minneapolis already has a Public Works facility at 1911 E. 26th St., which it has long planned to expand with more offices, a storage yard for water maintenance crews’ vehicles and equipment, a diesel fueling station and employee parking ramp. In 2016, it spent nearly $7 million to buy the adjacent property to the south – the Roof Depot warehouse – over the objections of a coalition of neighborhood residents with competing plans to purchase the same building for an urban farm.

The residents are organized as the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute (EPNI), and they accuse the city of trying to push an unwanted development that would increase traffic and carbon emissions onto a low-income, minority neighborhood already overburdened by heavy industry and air pollution. They are also concerned that demolition of the Roof Depot warehouse would displace arsenic contamination beneath the building.

“We’re talking about a Superfund site that was cleaned up to a certain level in the past with an expectation that that part of the parcel where the building is located would never be dug up,” said EPNI lawyer Jessica Blome during Thursday’s hearing. “The demolition and construction of a new building there will cause that soil to be dug up.”

Enslin pushed back, saying a demolition plan by geotechnical consulting firm Braun Intertec has been approved by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, and would safely remediate the property.

Efforts to reconcile their divergent visions have been unsuccessful so far.

This summer Mayor Jacob Frey and City Council members proposed that the city and neighborhood activists share the 8.5-acre Roof Depot site in a development plan including the new Public Works water yard, an urban farm and a job training center prioritizing neighborhood residents. EPNI hasn’t accepted, holding fast to two lawsuits – in district and appellate court – that claim the city hasn’t reviewed the potential environmental harm of its project within the context of all the other pollution sources already located in East Phillips.

“This community can’t bear any more pollution. It already has the worst health consequences as a result of the traffic, of the asphalt plant, of a foundry, of everything that is already there, not to mention the poisoning from the arsenic at the Superfund site that is still present,” said EPNI lawyer Miles Ringsred during oral arguments before the Court of Appeals in late November.

The Court of Appeals has 90 days from Nov. 30 to issue an opinion about whether the city’s environmental review of its own project was sufficient.

The District Court trial is scheduled for April 2024.

The Minneapolis City Council still needs to approve demolition bids before the teardown can begin.



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Rochester blocks comments on city social media pages

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ROCHESTER – Residents here with questions or concerns about city government will no longer be able to use official city social media pages to air their grievances.

On Wednesday, the city of Rochester began restricting social media users from leaving comments on posts from its official Facebook and Instagram pages, as well as pages for parks, police and other departments.

City Administrator Alison Zelms said the policy is in response to what she described as “counterproductive” activity on the city’s social media pages.

“Discontinuing the use of comments effectively reduces the potential for harmful content and negative interactions because it removes an unmoderated and monitored forum for those activities,” Zelms wrote in the announcement.

Comment sections on city posts were typically not monitored by departments, city officials said, due to “staffing challenges” and a prioritization of resources to other city needs. Rochester Public Schools also no longer allows public comments on its posts.

Mayor Kim Norton, who has spoken previously about the negative interactions she has had online, also disabled comments on her pages on Wednesday. Users will now only be able to react (by emoji) to posts or reshare a post with comments to their own personal pages. Norton said she remains available by phone or email.

“I believe this change will support our efforts to provide information, and also to create a better, safer digital environment for all,” Norton said in a statement.

Within hours of the announcement, threads on other sites began filling up with questions about the legality of the new city policy, with some users suggesting it amounted to censorship.

But Dr. Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota, said the city is within its rights to discontinue public comments on its social media channels. Kirtley noted that while local governments cannot block comments based on one viewpoint or another, they are under no obligation to manage a public forum on social media.

“They can decide to discontinue the public forum if they choose,” Kirtley said. “If they do allow public comments, they can only impose reasonable restrictions on time, place, and manner. These restrictions must be viewpoint neutral.”

On social media threads — ones not managed by the city — there were a few users who defended the government’s decision to restrict comments, noting that city threads are often cesspools of comments from people trolling and harassing public officials.

But overwhelmingly, users were critical of the move. One commenter wrote that while “the change may simplify some aspects of the city’s social media management … eliminating open dialogue among constituents on the platforms most people use to connect is certainly not going to improve community engagement or help build trust in local government.”



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Judge blocks MPCA from restricting hours at St. Paul iron foundry accused of pollution

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A judge has blocked the state from limiting operating hours and imposing other restrictions intended to reduce air pollution from a St. Paul iron foundry.

Earlier this year, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency ordered Northern Iron, LLC, to limit its daily operations to control airborne lead and particulate matter, which can damage the lungs and circulatory system when inhaled.

But in a ruling issued July 11, Ramsey County District Judge Leonardo Castro partially granted Northern Iron’s request for an injunction, preventing the state from enforcing limits on how much metal the company could melt in a day and what hours it could operate. Northern Iron says the agency’s demands would make the foundry go out of business.

The judge left intact other provisions of MPCA’s order, and ordered the business and the agency to work together on a new air permit and installing new pollution control equipment. MPCA has said the business’ own modeling shows it is releasing pollutants at thousands of times the level allowed by law.

Alex Lawton, CEO of foundry owner Lawton Standard, told the Star Tribune that after the ruling, he “felt relief for the folks who were laid off that who wanted to come back to work.” The company announced shortly after MPCA’s order that it would have to cut 15% of its workforce, but is now operating with its full staffing of about 80 employees.

MPCA said in an email sent out shortly after the ruling that it “respectfully disagrees” with the decision.

“We stand ready to hold the company accountable should pollution emissions exceed [air quality] standards, to protect the health company employees and nearby residents,” agency spokesperson Andrea Cournoyer wrote in a statement.

Northern Iron opened at 867 N. Forest St. in St. Paul’s Payne-Phalen neighborhood in 1906. It molds made-to-order components that other companies use in finished products. Lawton Standard bought the business in 2022.

Sidney Pisano, vice chair of the Payne-Phalen Community Council, said the court decision has left the neighborhood feeling “disregarded.”

“It feels like we don’t matter, and I think that’s a sentiment a lot of East Siders have felt for a long time,” she said.

The situation has played out differently than the regulation of another urban iron casting company. Smith Foundry spurred complaints of bad smells and air pollution for years from neighbors in Minneapolis’ East Phillips neighborhood. The EPA took the lead on an investigation there, after a surprise inspection last year, and got the foundry to agree to shut down its furnace and casting operations in a settlement. Some in the area were frustrated it took action by EPA, not MPCA, to address the issues.

In the Northern Iron case, MPCA has led the enforcement, including a $41,500 fine imposed on the foundry last year for changing its pollution controls without reporting it to the state. Lawton said the Smith Foundry case was hanging over the regulation of his own business, and suggested it had encouraged regulators to take a stronger hand.

“I think Smith and certain other factors like that seemed to be omnipresent,” he said.

Since the fine last year, MPCA and the foundry have been discussing how to reduce its emissions. After one round of modelling showed that the particulate matter and lead released were thousands of times higher than federal rules allow, Northern Iron then came up with new calculations to show how the emissions would change if they altered their hours or installed new equipment.

The particulate pollution would still be higher than allowed, and the calculations for lead “seemingly defy the conservation of mass and likely cause an underestimate of lead emissions at some sources,” according to MPCA’s administrative order.

The company contends that it’s not polluting, because monitors stationed around the foundry show the air doesn’t exceed state limits on contaminants. It is still planning to install two air filters and make other improvements at the building, a project that will cost around $2 million, Lawton said.

But Cournoyer said that the foundry’s current permit requires it to use modeling to show it is meeting air quality standards.

The foundry and the state agency will next be in court on Aug. 22, when MPCA will argue to dismiss the case. Northern Iron said it plans to submit a new air permit application by August.

“I feel glad the MPCA is keeping the pressure on,” Pisano said.



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Elderly MN woman allegedly coerced into giving TX man $100,000 in gold bars

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A Minnesota woman was coerced into turning over $100,000 in gold bars and $36,000 in cash to a Texas man who swindled her, according to charges.

Mutahir Ahmed Khan, 23, from the Dallas suburb of McKinney, was arrested in Pennsylvania and appeared in Marshall County District Court after being charged with two counts of felony theft in connection with the swindling of a 67-year-old woman from Warren in northwestern Minnesota.

Khan remains jailed in lieu of $1.5 million bail and is due back in court on Tuesday. Messages were left with his attorney seeking a response to the allegations.

According to the charges and the Marshall County Sheriff’s Office:

On Feb. 22, a McKinney police officer told the Sheriff’s Office that a woman in Marshall County might be among the victims in a Texas fraud investigation.

That same day, the woman spoke with a sheriff’s deputy and said she sent a large amount of money to a man in Texas named “Mark Sabation” out of a concern because he had access to her Social Security number.

The woman said she slipped $100 bills into the pages of books, then on Aug. 22 sent the books holding $36,000 in all in two boxes to separate CVS pharmacies in Texas.

About a week later, the woman said, she followed orders and bought $100,000 worth of gold bars online. On Sept. 1, “Mark Sabation” called and told her to put the bars in a white car parked outside her home. She did as directed, saw the car leave but could not see who was driving. The Sheriff’s Office later determined that Khan was behind the wheel.

Pharmacy surveillance video captured Khan picking up the packages at the two locations. A search of his home by law enforcement turned up photos and other incriminating evidence.

Khan was tracked down and arrested on June 27 during a traffic stop in central Pennsylvania. He told police in McKinney that he was collecting the boxes, then taking them to a location he did not reveal in exchange for compensation. He declined to identify who received the boxes and that “he had been coerced into picking up these packages, although he was being compensated for his work.”

Khan said that the two packages from the woman in Warren were among roughly 40 packages that he handled in August and September.



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