Fire at Becker Metal

Fire at Becker Metal recycling plant continues to burn

– Firefighters remained on the scene Wednesday afternoon of a stubborn blaze that has been burning in stacks of wrecked vehicles for more than 24 hours at the Northern Metals Recycling plant on the outskirts of this city in Sherburne County.

Crews from at least 18 departments were on the scene from midnight to 6 a.m. Wednesday and many were expected to remain at the Becker Industrial Park, said Brent Baloun, the city’s police chief. Baloun said firefighters are getting water from Excel Energy and Liberty Paper, among other sources. A steady line of tanker trucks were bringing water to the scene.

“This type of fire, you need a lot more water. The hydrants can only produce so much. You’re concerned about drawing down your water to the city,” Baloun said. “If anybody watched this, they couldn’t help but be impressed.”

As of noon the fire still had a number hot spots and was not fully under control. The cause of the fire remains unknown, Baloun said.

Life in Becker hasn’t been dramatically disrupted by the fire, perhaps because the prevailing winds have been blowing smoke away from the city.

“We’ve been fortunate with the wind,” Baloun said.

Residents in Big Lake, 9 miles to the southeast, caught the drift. The smell of burning plastic and smoke wafted through town, raising health concerns from local residents, said Big Lake Police Chief Joel Scharf.

“With a wind shift it’s stronger today. We are hoping to hear more today about what’s in the air,” Scharf said in an e-mail to the Star Tribune. “Our officials are very concerned about what’s in the air and working to get answers as quickly as possible for our residents.”

On Tuesday, the Becker officials called in a Sherburne County Emergency Management Team, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Health Department amid concerns over air quality. Police told residents with respiratory problems who live near the plant to remain indoors or in well-ventilated areas. The MPCA was monitoring the air but officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The Minnesota Department of Health is consulting with other agencies on the scene, said spokesman Doug Schultz. As of noon Wednesday it had no reports about any unusual, imminent threats. The advice to avoid exposure by sheltering in place or leaving the area is the same that would be given out in a large forest fire, he said.

Overnight, an All-Incident Hazards Management Team was called in to help with operations, Baloun said. On Wednesday, dozens of firefighters marshaled in a staging area less than 100 yards from the burning pyre. None wore hazmat suits or respirators and no one seemed overly concerned about toxic exposure.

A passerby first spotted the fire around 2:25 a.m. Tuesday. Crews from three departments arrived to find the fire burning in a debris pile of crushed-up cars. No buildings caught fire.

Northern Metals moved its shredding operation from north Minneapolis to Becker last year after the Pollution Control Agency ordered it to shut down after finding high levels of air pollutants in the neighborhood that have been linked to health problems such as increased risk of heart attacks, bronchitis and asthma. The company was fined $200,000 after it admitted to altering and inaccurately recording pollution readings.

Star Tribune Dan Browning contributed information to this report.

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