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'Clearly frustrating': MPCA addresses Water Gremlin investigation

Updated: August 28, 2019 05:48 AM

Neighbors still want answers about pollution violations by a north Metro company. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency answered questions Tuesday night about its investigation in White Bear Lake. 

Water Gremlin of White Bear Township makes fishing sinkers and battery terminals. Earlier his month, the MPCA ordered Water Gremlin to stop its battery coating process, for a second time, due to violations.

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The company paid more than $7 million in fines for the pollution violations, which could go back 15 years.

MPCA Commissioner Laura Bishop said the MPCA is doing its own internal review.

“How did something go on this long?” she said. “What we’re trying to do is look at our resources within our enforcement and within our investigations unit to beef up our resources.”

In January, the company shut down some of its battery terminal production after the MPCA found it was emitting cancer-causing TCE into the air.

The company agreed to replace TCE with a different, less toxic solvent tDCE. The company was also required to do a remedial investigation and sampling on the property.

At Tuesday's meeting, the MPCA explained the investigation found lead in soil, sediment and surface water. It also found TCE in groundwater on the property, although drinking water is not at risk.

According to the state agency, Water Gremlin got sampling results in June, which showed tDCE was being released to the soil vapor beneath the building. The company is accused of withholding that information from the MPCA for 40 days.

On Aug. 14, MPCA asked Water Gremlin to voluntarily shut down production until the problem could be fixed. The company did not so on Aug. 22 the state ordered it to stop production.

“It’s clearly frustrating and it has to be even more enormously frustrating for our citizens out there,” said Bishop.


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5 EYEWITNESS NEWS asked Bishop if there should’ve been more oversight by the MPCA. She explained that, under the initial agreement, the company was required to direct emissions to a control stack.

“Under their permit, we look at what’s going into the air, we didn’t expect that there would be a release under their building,” said Bishop.

In order for production to start again, Bishop said the company will need to explain how the violation happened and fix it.

“If they’re not safe in their business and protective of the citizens then they need to find another business,” she said. “We need them to take this seriously, as seriously as we’re taking it.”

People who packed in to the meeting asked questions and shared frustrations.

“We live in an area that’s heavily residential; there’s lakes, there’s wetlands all around us, we thought we moved into the perfect area,” said Leigh Thiel. “It’s been concerning.”

She moved to a home about a quarter-mile from the company in 2004.

“I think that they have a choice and I hope they make the choice to do the right thing,” Thiel said. “I would love to see them get back and operating in a safe way.”

The meeting comes amid reports Water Gremlin is considering moving some operations out of state.

According to a release, Water Gremlin was working with Hi-Tec Finishing in Hudson, Wisconsin.

On Tuesday, Hi-Tec Finishing released this statement:

"Hi-Tec Finishing (“Hi-Tec”) recently entered into a contract with Water Gremlin Company (“Water Gremlin”) in which Hi-Tec agreed to process certain Water Gremlin products using equipment provided to Hi-Tec by Water Gremlin.  Hi-Tec became properly permitted for these operations through the State of Wisconsin.  When it entered into the contract with Water Gremlin, Hi-Tec was unaware that the chemicals used to process the Water Gremlin products are alleged to be unsafe and unhealthy.  Hi-Tec only became aware of this fact on August 26, 2019 after being advised by the local media.  In response, Hi-Tec has taken immediate steps to terminate its relationship with Water Gremlin and will not be performing any processing work for Water Gremlin. 

Hi-Tec very much values its relationship with the City of Hudson and its residents and apologizes for any concerns this matter has raised."

MPCA Commissioner Bishop said she called the Wisconsin DNR on Tuesday to notify them of the violations.

Water Gremlin confirmed to 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS on Tuesday night that the company has no plans to relocate to Wisconsin.

Carl Dubois, vice president of international manufacturing, issued the following statement:

"While Water Gremlin was not asked to play an official role in tonight's meeting, we respect the MPCA's process and are glad that they are providing information to our neighbors. 

We would like to address some of the misconceptions that have been stated about our company. Below are the facts based on the most recent available information.

Water Gremlin used t-DCE, not DCE. And they are not the same thing.
Prior to receiving the MPCA's administrative order to cease our coating operations last week, Water Gremlin was using trans-1,2-Dichloroethylene, or t-DCE. The distinction is important to note as DCE typically refers to 1,1-DCE, which is listed on the EPA's Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) as a possible carcinogen, whereas t-DCE is not. 

With Minnesota and New York as the exceptions, we are unaware of any other state setting any type of chronic inhalation exposure level for t-DCE. Also, Minnesota is the only state that has set a soil intrusion rate. Both of these levels were put in place by the MPCA after Water Gremlin notified the agency of its intent to switch to t-DCE. 
              
Water Gremlin has not exceeded emission limits for t-DCE.
We have a comprehensive system to monitor outdoor air emissions, with independent laboratory results reported directly to the MPCA. To date, Water Gremlin has not exceeded any emission limits for t-DCE. We measure our usage of t-DCE in real time, so we can make immediate adjustments if needed. 

All data suggests that there is no immediate threat to human health or the environment.
The t-DCE found beneath the foundation of our building is limited to Water Gremlin's property and does not pose a health threat to our employees. Our indoor vapor testing shows rates are well below OSHA standards. Work to address vapors was already underway when the MPCA first started communicating about it. We are installing a vapor mitigation system – much like a home radon system – which is scheduled to be operational in the entire building by the end of this week. 

Anyone interested in receiving email updates from Water Gremlin is encouraged to sign up on our website."

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Callan Gray

Copyright 2019 - KSTP-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company

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