Neighbors worried about health after White Bear company halts production due to emissions concerns

February 21, 2019 10:40 PM

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is investigating a White Bear Township company. Water Gremlin had to shut down a production line last month after concerns over emissions.

People living as a far as a mile from the manufacturing company could be at risk for cancers and other serious health problems, according to MPCA. The state agency said the company has been emitting higher-than-allowed levels of trichloroethylene, or TCE, into the air.

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Water Gremlin used the chemical during battery terminal production.

“It’s odorless, it's colorless so it's hard to see it and smell it,” said Jeff Smith, Director of Industrial Division at MPCA.

The company reported a pollution control equipment failure to the MPCA over the summer, according to a letter the company sent to neighbors on Feb 1.

The MPCA said it launched an investigation, but didn’t ask Water Gremlin to stop production until January 14. The company immediately voluntarily agreed to do so.

“They did not provide to us all of the information,” said Smith. “I think that's the important part of why it took so long.”

Smith said the problem may go back even further, to 2002. State inspectors didn’t catch the problem despite multiple visits.

“We did do normal inspections at the facility,” said Smith. “If you look at pollution control equipment, or the way they operated, you could not detect whether this was being emitted or if they were in compliance with their permit.”

He said the company will likely face a civil penalty.

“We expect a facility as sophisticated as they are, ought to know if their pollution equipment is not working,” said Smith.

Frustrated neighbors packed into a public forum at the White Bear Lake North Campus High School auditorium.

“It was known this summer, that's a long time for pollutants to have been going into the air,” said Sheri Smith, worried about her family’s health.

Smith has lived about a quarter-mile from the facility for 14 years. MPCA has designated a mile to a mile-and-a-half radius around Water Gremlin as an “area of concern”.

“I don’t feel that I can trust Water Gremlin to give me a straight answer,” said Smith.

Dawn Ronnan told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS she lived across the street for more than 20 years before moving away because of the company.

“I was sick, concerned, sick with worry,” said Ronnan, describing the moment she learned about the emission levels.

MPCA sent a letter to residents on Jan. 31 notifying them of the violation.

Ronnan said a lot of questions still need to be answered.

“We don’t have a timeline, I don’t have a timeline for how long this has been going on,” she said.

The company did not respond to our requests for comment.

A statement released by Water Gremlin on Feb. 7 said, “Water Gremlin will no longer use trichloroethylene (TCE). We have removed all TCE from the premise. The company has submitted an application to restart coating operations with an alternate solvent (FluoSolv) that is not a hazardous air pollutant. We will not restart operations until we are in full compliance with MPCA requirements.”

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Callan Gray

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