District court judge allows conditional restart for Water Gremlin

A 20-year employee wore his Water Gremlin jacket to the hearing Nov. 1 at the Ramsey County Courthouse. Employees packed the courtroom to hear whether the plant would reopen. A hearing is also scheduled at 11 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 6, to discuss long-term plans to manage lead dust.  

ST. PAUL — District Court Judge Leonardo Castro allowed Water Gremlin employees to return to work Nov. 5 after attorneys for the company and state agencies hashed out an action plan to keep lead dust from leaving the plant. 

The judge also made it clear he wouldn't hesitate to stop operations if he is not satisfied with the company's efforts to comply.

In a joint statement by the Minnesota Department of Health, Department of Labor and Industry (DLI) and Ramsey County Public Health following the Friday hearing, agency officials said they "appreciate the court's action to begin the process of ensuring that Water Gremlin employees and their children are safe from lead poisoning. 

"These first steps by Water Gremlin are important, but not sufficient, and as the court made clear, will need to be followed by more permanent solutions."   

The agencies agreed that progress has been made in addressing "serious health concerns" but more work is needed. "Our priority during the coming days will be to effectively monitor Water Gremlin's implementation of the court order and be certain Water Gremlin management and consultants understand clearly what must be done to resume operations safely," the statement read. 

The company was shut down Oct. 28 after elevated lead levels were found in a dozen children of employees. The district court was then asked to hear the labor department's request to extend the stop order indefinitely. 

Water Gremlin attorney Thaddeus Lightfoot, an environmental specialist with Dorsey & Whitney LLP, told the judge his client "has moved heaven and earth" to create an acceptable plan for restart. 

Dubbed the Clean Exit plan, it's divided into three phases. Phase I consists of activities the company will implement in 30 days or less. In the very short-term, employees were to receive third-party training on lead reduction and hazard communication Nov. 4. Interpreters would be on site for multilingual presentations. Enforcement tools for supervisors and management would also be covered. 

Workplace changes in the first phase will include disposable footwear, hair nets and ensuring coveralls remain zipped. Cell phones will be prohibited in production areas and supervisory personnel will be required to be on site at all times.

The company also agreed to spend the weekend cleaning susceptible parts of the plant, including the lunchroom and locker rooms, and worker's vehicles will be cleaned once the company gets written authorization from employees. Commissioners will receive daily progress reports. 

The shutdown was precipitated by a surprise inspection Saturday, Oct. 26. An employee was wearing half-zipped coveralls in a lead production area and cell phones were present.

The attorney for the DLI, Peter Surdo, insisted that a new plan have strict rules that must be enforced with disciplinary action for those who break those rules. 

He objected to certain items in the action plan, preferring that the company adopt an aggressive timeline by meeting industry standards within 24 hours. "Water Gremlin isn't entitled to the benefit of the doubt anymore," Surdo told the judge. "It has demonstrated that no matter what it tries to do with its current layout, it’s not going to work.”

Lightfoot objected to the comment, calling it a "wild overstatement." Water Gremlin's counsel also took exception to a comment by Surdo that the action plan was a "flimsy Band-Aid approach" to the lead poisoning issue. Lightfoot then apologized. 

"Let's not go backward; let's go forward," chided the judge. 

"We all have responsibility to ensure things are getting done properly," said Castro, looking out at the packed courtroom. Most of those in attendance appeared to be Water Gremlin employees.

Water Gremlin's Carl Dubois, vice president of international manufacturing, issued a statement saying he is pleased with the ruling. "Our employees are excited to get back to work," he said. "We will fulfill the requirements set forth by the judge and look forward to building upon the improvements that have already been made at our facility."

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