A metal recycler in Shakopee was fined $140,000 by the Environmental Protection Agency for mishandling climate-warming refrigerants.
Dem-Con Metal Recycling accepts scrap metals and old appliances, and then sends them to other companies to be shredded, company President Bill Keegan said this week. Old refrigerators and air conditioners can still contain chemicals that are illegal to release into the environment.
The EPA said the problems at Dem-Con “have caused or can cause” the release of the chemicals.
But Keegan said no chemicals were ever released from the materials Dem-Con has recycled and that the company only “needed to develop the proper procedures and practices” to handle refrigerants.
The EPA said the company violated the part of the Clean Air Act that governs atmospheric pollution, instead of emissions near the ground that can cause local problems. As a result, it incurred a higher fine.
“We’re a small company. It’s a huge fine,” Keegan said.
Dem-Con runs another scrap metal recycling facility in Blaine and six other Twin Cities operations, including landfills, traditional consumer recycling and dumpster rentals.
The EPA under the Biden administration has focused on reducing rogue refrigerants because the chemicals are potent greenhouse gases that contribute to the warming of the planet.
In a 2019 visit, federal inspectors noted that Dem-Con employees did not recover refrigerant from scrapped appliances, according to a Finding of Violation provided by EPA. Employees at the location were also unable to turn on equipment designed to capture the refrigerants.
Keegan said the company “has been compliant ever since” EPA’s visit and fully cooperated with its investigation.
Window air conditioners, refrigerators and car air conditioning systems contain chemicals that help cool spaces. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) — the two refrigerants mentioned in EPA’s findings — are potent greenhouse gases.
CFCs, in particular, have also contributed to the thinning of the Earth’s ozone layer. Under the 1989 Montreal Protocol, the United States and many other countries agreed to stop using them.
HFCs were supposed to be a replacement, but proved to be accelerants of climate change when they are released into the atmosphere. According to EPA, this category of chemicals’ potential to warm the planet can be “hundreds to thousands of times greater” than the most common greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide. Congress has since ordered the EPA to cut down on production and consumption of HFC by 85% by 2036.
Ensuring the chemicals are captured from waste and recycling has proved a challenge, with just 17% of HFCs in old air conditioners and refrigerators being recaptured, the Star Tribune reported in February.
The metal recycling industry has also come under scrutiny by Minnesota’s environmental regulators in the past year for potential air pollution problems. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency said in February that it was investigating air pollution at seven sites around the state where metal is actually shredded.
In an email, agency spokeswoman Andrea Cournoyer said there was no update on the investigation.