BECKER, Minn. -- Residents in the central Minnesota city of Becker watched the sky on Thursday, Feb. 20, and worried about the quality of the air they were breathing, as piles of junk vehicles burned at a metal recycling facility for the third straight day.

Jaime St. Denis was taking her five kids, who range in age from 7 to 16, to play basketball at the Becker Community Center.

“I know all week it’s been tough on the kids, because they haven’t been allowed to play outside,” St. Denis said. “I know my boys were getting a little bit frustrated, because they couldn’t go outside for recess.”

Officials said the fire at the new Northern Metal Recycling plant is largely contained, after firefighters separated a portion of the vehicle pile and let it burn out, creating a fire break. But the debris continued to smolder, sending a diminished but still visible plume into the clear winter sky.

That plume initially blew southeast of Becker toward the town of Big Lake, but shifting winds carried the smoke toward the city of Becker, where schools canceled classes Thursday as a precaution, but resumed Friday.

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Residents were told to stay clear of the area, avoid inhaling smoke and stay indoors if possible, especially if they have respiratory issues such as asthma. The state health department said preliminary air tests found nothing that required an evacuation. But many residents voiced frustration on social media about a lack of information about whether the air is hazardous.

Heavy machinery was used Thursday, Feb. 20, to clean up and contain the fire that started Tuesday morning at Northern Metal Recycling in Becker, Minn. Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News
Heavy machinery was used Thursday, Feb. 20, to clean up and contain the fire that started Tuesday morning at Northern Metal Recycling in Becker, Minn. Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

On Thursday afternoon, officials from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and state Department of Health said Northern Metal had hired an outside company to sample the air. The MPCA said it had also hired its own consultant to do similar testing for volatile organic compounds, particulates and metals that might be contained in smoke from burning vehicles.

The results of those tests were expected Friday afternoon, said MPCA air quality program manager Frank Kohlasch.

Officials also were testing groundwater in the area. Becker city administrator Greg Pruszinske said that, based on information the city had Thursday, no water used in firefighting efforts got into the city’s storm sewers, the Mississippi River or the city’s drinking water supply.

Northern Metal’s facility has drain ponds designed to capture rainwater, Pruszinske said — and the water in those ponds will also be tested to determine what’s in it.

More than 100 fire departments helped to fight the fire, mostly by sending water in tankers — from as far away as Two Harbors on the north shore of Lake Superior, said Becker Assistant Fire Chief Tom Wark. Crews on the scene worried they might be putting too much of a strain on Becker’s drinking water supply.

The fire rattled city officials, including Mayor Tracy Bertram, who spent Thursday visiting the scene, meeting with emergency managers and fielding calls from upset residents. Bertram said she felt bad that she wasn’t able to respond to everyone and give residents all the answers they were seeking.

“I wish there was, like, six of me,” she said. “But it’s me trying to do all of that, and stay focused on the safety and concerns that my citizens have -- and for the future of Becker.”

Investigators plan to start looking into the cause of the fire first thing Friday morning.

Controversial move

Northern Metal moved to Becker last year from its former location in north Minneapolis, where it had a fraught relationship with local residents and state pollution officials. The company faced air quality permit violations and was accused of submitting inaccurate emissions data to the state. It agreed to pay a fine and move out of Minneapolis in 2019.

The company relocated to an industrial area in Becker, on 75 acres it shares with Xcel Energy’s Sherco coal-fired power plant. Its new metal processing facility is indoors, and the company pledged to install state-of-the-art pollution control equipment to meet air quality standards.

However, Northern Metal hadn’t started operating the facility yet, Bertram said. It had been waiting on state and city permits, which were recently approved. She said the company had been stockpiling junk cars that it planned to shred and recycle, so the debris pile was far larger than it normally would be.

It was that massive stack of vehicles that caught fire early Tuesday morning. Most had been drained of fluids such as oil and gasoline, state officials said. But some still may have had tires, plastic, upholstery or other materials that can release hazardous chemicals when burned.

Kelly Malisheski stopped by the fire scene Thursday morning to drop off bottled water and Girl Scout cookies for emergency responders.

She said when she first heard about the fire, it didn’t seem very large. But Wednesday night, “it looked like a fireball -- just a massive explosion,” she said.

Malisheski said she was planning to drop her children off at her sister-in-law’s house out of town because she was worried about the air quality in Becker.

“I know a lot of parents are concerned about keeping their kids home,” she said. “It may not seem like much, but if you have kids with allergies or asthma, it’s not good for them to breathe the air. Kids want to go outside and play, and I don’t want to keep them contained.”

Jaime St. Denis walks with her daughter Moya, 13, into the Becker Community Center on Thursday, Feb. 20. The Becker resident was looking for something to do with her children, who got the day off from school due to the poor air quality from the Northern Metal Recycling fire. Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News
Jaime St. Denis walks with her daughter Moya, 13, into the Becker Community Center on Thursday, Feb. 20. The Becker resident was looking for something to do with her children, who got the day off from school due to the poor air quality from the Northern Metal Recycling fire. Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Learning from past

Northern Metal’s arrival in Becker was controversial. At the time, some residents voiced concern that the company would shift its air quality problems northwest from Minneapolis to Sherburne County.

Mayor Bertram said city officials thoroughly vetted Northern Metals and talked to multiple agencies after the company announced it planned to move to town.

“We really did our due diligence — finding all the facts of the company, what the history of it was,” she said. “And then we also let them tell us what they were going to be doing out here. How were they going to fix [things] from the past the lessons that they had learned?”

Bertram said she still has faith in the company. But she also understands that many residents have concerns, and pledged to schedule a public meeting so people can ask questions and get answers.

Becker Mayor Tracy Bertram talks about the impact the fire is having on her central Minnesota community. Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News
Becker Mayor Tracy Bertram talks about the impact the fire is having on her central Minnesota community. Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

“It’s going to take probably a week here to kind of [say], ‘OK, what happened? What did we learn? And now, how do we share that with everybody?” Bertram said. “It just takes a little bit of time. Rushing to accusations is not something I’m in favor of.”

Some residents also wondered why air quality testing didn’t start sooner. MPCA spokesperson Steve Mikkelson said it’s up to the company to have a plan for an incident such as a hazardous material spill or fire, and to respond to such an incident.

Once the air quality test results are available, they will be shared publicly and posted on the MPCA’s website, officials said.