WHITE BEAR LAKE — Every day there seems to be more news on Water Gremlin and its modus operandi.
Last week’s headlines started with a WCCO report that the township manufacturer of fishing sinkers and battery terminals was moving its coating process out of state by contracting with a Hudson, Wisconsin, company.
A day later, that company, Hi-Tech Finishing, announced it was terminating the arrangement, noting it was not aware the chemicals used in the process were “unsafe and unhealthy.” A letter from the CEO said they became aware of this fact Aug. 26 after being advised by local media.
On Tuesday, Aug. 27, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) held a community meeting at Central Middle School to talk about its investigation and answer questions from frustrated residents who want answers on how and why Water Gremlin remains in business.
MPCA Commissioner Laura Bishop kicked off the meeting, acknowledging that Water Gremlin’s pollution problems “landed on my plate” her first week on the job.
“To say I was concerned is an understatement. I want to get to the bottom of this as much as you do and we are very driven to find answers,” Bishop told the 200-plus residents assembled in the school’s theater.
MPCA staff recapped timelines of Water Gremlin infractions, repeating findings of fact that led to the Aug. 22 administrative shutdown order. Assistant Commissioner Craig McDonnell used the word “accountable” many times, assuring citizens that MPCA is committed to holding the company responsible for its actions.
The order to cease the coating operation until corrective actions are taken was MPCA’s response to a report that revealed a volatile organic compound called tDCE was found in soil vapor under the building. The chemical replaces tricholorethylene, or TCE, a carcinogenic solvent Water Gremlin used in a manner that violated its permit for at least 15 years.
MPCA’s Sarah Kilgriff, manager of air enforcement and compliance, said the agency expected pollution control equipment brought online May 1 to function more efficiently and reduce emissions by a higher percentage. Test results show equipment is capturing about 25% of emissions. Regardless of how much is being removed, the company is still under its 90-ton limit, she said.
Evidently Water Gremlin got around its permit in 2017 and 2018 by recycling TCE. “The previous permit had a TCE purchase limit,” Kilgriff explained. “Water Gremlin didn’t disclose the fact they collected the TCE from the process through pollution control equipment and used it again. That is information MPCA didn’t have. They were doing something that didn’t allow us to determine compliance.”
Trust was an issue raised by audience members in a follow-up Q&A. McDonnell concurred.
“We don’t trust Water Gremlin to do the right thing, so we have to make sure a robust system is in place to monitor what they’re doing,” he asserted. The assistant commissioner was referring to a permitting process that ensures pollution control equipment is effective. “We will make the new permit incredibly stringent. If they mess up, we’ll hold them accountable.”
McDonnell pointed out that under state and federal law, Water Gremlin has the opportunity to come into compliance. “I know that is tough to hear for this community,” he said. “We have to make sure everything we do has legal basis.”
Senator asks for criminal investigation
Sen. Roger Chamberlain (R-Lino Lakes) made headlines with an Aug. 28 press release urging the Ramsey County attorney and legislative auditor to investigate both Water Gremlin and MPCA for possible criminal violations.
“We have a responsibility to protect the health and well-being of our citizens,” Chamberlain said. “Someone, or more likely several people, dropped the ball in the Water Gremlin situation. Residents deserve to know what happened so those responsible can be held to account.”
Letters went to County Attorney John Choi and Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles, asking them to investigate the MPCA’s management of Water Gremlin’s permitting history as well as the agency’s handling of violations.
A second release from Chamberlain Thursday, Aug. 29, indicated the senator was taking it further, asking the governor, the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and Sheriff Bob Fletcher to join the investigation.
On March 1, Water Gremlin paid more than $7 million in fines and civil penalties for its pollution violations, the second largest in state history.
What are MPCA’s next steps for Water Gremlin?
• Install a building mitigation system to address current TCE and tDCE vapor contamination and continue site remedial investigation; expanding test sites to determine contamination on the property.
• Water Gremlin must also stop further tDCE contamination on the property. The company must submit a plan to MPCA that must be approved before operations can restart.
• MPCA will be monitoring airborne lead levels near the Water Gremlin property. This is being done out of an “abundance of caution” to be sure airborne levels around community match those the agency expects to see around the metro.
Video of the MPCA meeting can be found at www.pca.state.mn.us/air/water-gremlin.
Water Gremlin issues response
Water Gremlin issued this statement from Carl Dubois, vice president of international manufacturing, following the Aug. 27 MPCA community meeting:
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.