Cooperative effort will improve air quality

by Michelle Moriarity

Thanks to the efforts of a local neighborhood group, environmental activists and a local factory plant, the industrial cleaning fumes drifting through parts of Prospect Park will dissipate within the next six weeks.
As part of an informal agreement with the Prospect Park/East River Road Improvement Association, American National Can Co., 10 26th St. S.E., is moving parts of its operation to Joplin, Mo. The move could reduce the amount of hazardous material released into the air in the Prospect Park neighborhood.
The company, which manufactures plastic bottles, metal cans and laminated labels, is the second largest producer of beverage cans in the United States and the world’s fourth largest aluminum producer.
The agreement comes on the heels of a study conducted by Citizens for a Better Environment, which determined that the University area is one of the most polluted areas in Minneapolis.
The study, which utilized 1995 Minnesota Pollution Control Agency statistics, showed that while toxic air emissions statewide decreased, pollution in southeast Minneapolis increased.
Bill Kahn, chairman of the environment committee of the Prospect Park organization, said conversations between the company and local residents began several years ago but fizzled because of company officials’ lack of interest.
“We generally got good-natured stonewalling back then,” Kahn said.
After the factory’s management changed, Kahn said, the association tried again to build a working relationship with the industry. The two entities are finally working toward mutual goals, he said — but it didn’t happen overnight. Strict confidentiality policies have sometimes inhibited communication, he said.
“They’re keeping us pretty well informed — as much as they care to,” he said.
Earlier this year, American National Can informed the neighborhood of the business’ move, Kahn said, noting that it would significantly reduce pollution in Prospect Park.
But for Angela McCann, a project associate for Citizens for a Better Environment who has consulted with Prospect Park residents, the issue extends beyond open-air pollution.
“If you’ve got this horrible smell outside the factory, what are the people inside dealing with?” said McCann, a senior in the University’s College of Natural Resources.
McCann said the regional group’s local activity originated with water contamination issues. But the widespread effects of pollution soon led to concerns about air quality.
“There’s no such thing as polluting in one medium,” McCann said. Natural processes move pollutants through the ground, air and water, she added.
The 1996 Pollution Control Agency report for American National Can states that about 832 tons of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) — including substances similar to nail polish remover — were released into the air, making American National Can the seventh highest VOC emitter in the state.
However, emissions inventory coordinator Paul Kim said that the top five emitters in the state emit more than 90 percent of all VOCs reported.
Carol Constantine, vice president of corporate communications at American National Can’s Chicago headquarters, said the corporation is in compliance with both state and federal environmental regulations and maintains good working relations with local neighborhood groups.
“In 1997, the Minneapolis plant exceeded its pledge to the community to reduce usage levels of (hazardous materials),” she said. “The plant has committed to further reduce them in 1999.”
These reassurances, however, have not stopped local neighborhood groups from seeking stronger communication from local industries.
At this month’s meeting of the Southeast Como Improvement Association, McCann presented a proposal that Southeast Como, Prospect Park and Marcy-Holmes association members pool funds and hire a full-time environmental coordinator for southeast Minneapolis.
The purpose of the position, McCann said, would be to address local environmental issues in the context of industrial-neighborhood relationships. By creating good neighbor agreements, she said, businesses and residents can work together to reduce environmental hazards without litigation.
Southeast Como association members unanimously agreed that they would consider contributing to the potential three-way effort. Pollution, they said, is an ongoing problem that requires a cooperative solution.
“Air quality has been an issue since I moved into Southeast 40 years ago,” said association secretary Joan Menken. “I just think it’s time we bite this bullet and take this on in a big way.”