WHITE BEAR TOWNSHIP — Lead contamination is Water Gremlin's latest public affliction.
The company continues to claim it is trying to do the right thing regarding chemical use while reports of dangerous heavy metals in its workplace hit the 10 p.m. news.
A report by WCCO last week indicated that 75% of Water Gremlin employees had blood lead levels (BLL) of more than 5 micrograms per deciliter, based on data over the last five years from the state Department of Health. Some had levels higher than 25 micrograms per deciliter. Even worse, employees were bringing lead contamination home to their children.
According to the news report, the health department knew about employees' high lead levels in 1992, long before Water Gremlin's problems with toxic chemical emissions were made public.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers a BLL of 5 as elevated and the trigger point to identify children who have higher levels of exposure than most children.
The township company is a global supplier of lead terminal posts for automotive and industrial batteries. About 5% percent of its business is the manufacture of lead fishing sinkers, the product that launched Water Gremlin in 1949.
Carl Dubois, vice president of international manufacturing, maintains that employee blood lead levels are routinely monitored to ensure a safe working environment.
"What the WCCO report doesn't say is what the safe occupational exposure level is for lead. It's well understood that above 5 micrograms per deciliter is unsafe for developmental children. What OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) says about the workplace is that maximum BLLs is 60 micrograms per deciliter. You should take action at 40. If it reaches 60, a worker is removed from exposure. We have no employees over 40 and, internally, we use 30 as an action level."
Dubois told WCCO in a statement that a lapse in employee industrial hygiene practices is the top contributing factor to an increase in an employee's blood level and inadvertent home exposure.
"To ensure the safety of our employees and their families, hygiene training and policies have long been in place," he said.
Some may think Water Gremlin is putting the onus on employees to manage lead contamination.
Leigh Thiel, board member of the watchdog organization Neighborhood Concerned Citizens Group (NCCG), doesn't think that's right.
"Yes, they have provided training; that's great, but it takes more than just training. It takes a culture of safety within the plant. What I see from Water Gremlin is a culture of disregard for taking care of its employees and the surrounding area."
Dubois said the company has had personal protective equipment (PPE) in place since 2015 for employees and contract workers. "People who fail to wash their hands are creating risk," he said. "People who go on break to their vehicles wearing their boots are transferring lead to their vehicles. We have a policy about using cellphones on the floor. It's not just to be jerks. What is attractive to young kids at home? A cellphone. If you've been using it at work while actively working with lead, then you probably have trace amounts on your phone. We did an awareness campaign this year to remind everyone of PPE and workplace policies that are in place for a reason. It's a tough situation. It's like buckling your kid up in a car seat. If you don't, you're endangering them.
"Water Gremlin has enhanced these policies and implemented a continuous employee awareness campaign to reaffirm their importance," Dubois continued. "We have take-home awareness in seven languages. Ramsey County Public Health has reported our employee average BLL has dropped 18% as a result of the awareness campaign last year. We are awaiting new feedback. We are hopeful this has proven effective in take-home situations, too."
Monitoring air for lead
The day after the Oct. 21 WCCO report, Water Gremlin issued a statement noting lead testing has come in well under federal standards.
"The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) recently conducted air monitoring on Water Gremlin's property due to neighbor concerns about lead," the statement read. "The first round of testing, conducted Sept. 18, came in more than 32 times below the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) standard of 0.15 micrograms per cubic meter. The two samples, taken on the east and northwest sides of our property, came in at 0.0046 and 0.0045 micrograms per cubic meter, respectively."
The company went on to say EPA's standard is based on a three-month average, so results are preliminary. "We will continue to monitor these results and share relevant updates with the community," Dubois said.
Meanwhile lead sampling and data reporting is ongoing. MPCA is putting air monitoring results on its website, but at this point only last month's data is online. The agency noted that due to lab scheduling conflicts, results will not be updated until around Nov. 1.
"The lead issue with Water Gremlin is starting to become part of the story," observed NCCG's Thiel. "We are happy to have the MPCA air monitor for lead in place. There was just one day's sample reported on the MPCA website and one of the locations had an error with the data. Water Gremlin is right that based on the one day, results are looking good."
Dubois sees the lead issue as one of awareness. "We process lead, so it will remain. It will take awareness as to what is occupational exposure, what is environmental exposure and what is background level from decades of using leaded gasoline. It will take awareness as to what is exceptional and what are background levels."
Coating process still down
The company's lead coating process remains shut down. Dubois said they have completed all actions the company committed to taking to prevent solvent from going under the concrete slab and is waiting for MPCA to say concerns have been addressed.
MPCA visits the plant weekly and has invited other enforcement agencies to inspect Water Gremlin while the coating process is dormant. Dubois said Ramsey County performed hazardous waste inspections, MPCA inspected stormwater, OSHA conducted inspections and the Met Council inspected wastewater.
There have been findings.
"We are talking to MPCA regarding hazardous waste in stormwater. These aren't allegations that we're doing something wrong with our hazardous waste, but more administrative-type discussions," Dubois said. "We passed wastewater inspection with Met Council and the OSHA inspection is still going on, so I can't make conclusions. They liked our data for monitoring airborne levels to make sure workers are safe, but they are doing their own sampling."
Dubois said Water Gremlin will "continue to put one foot in front of the other to do what's best for the community. In the long run, we plan to eliminate volatile organic compounds altogether."
NCCG's Thiel said she is not against chemical companies and doesn't want to see Water Gremlin out of business. "They're a big employer, and jobs are important. I just don't want them hurting the employees or my family. This is what drives me."