WHITE BEAR LAKE — Disappointed that bills related to the chemical trichloroethylene (TCE) failed this session, the five women who lobbied the Legislature to ban the carcinogen refuse to give up.
All live within the 1.5-mile radius of Water Gremlin impacted by toxic emissions of TCE, a cancer-causing industrial solvent.
The Neighborhood Concerned Citizens Group (NCCG), as they call themselves, includes Sherry Hastings, Kelly Tapkan, Leigh Thiel, Catherine Sullivan and Sheri Smith. All have professional jobs and careers. All are taking time from busy lives to focus on their mission: to understand the past; protect the future and to hold Water Gremlin accountable.
The women helped legislators draft language for bills that would phase out TCE (making Minnesota the first state to ban the chemical); dedicate penalty money paid by Water Gremlin for independent testing and health assessment in the area; and require agencies to inform schools about chemical contamination.
"All three bills made it through the House and Senate and to conference committee and then things fell apart," said Hastings, NCCG president. "We were told it was last minute intervention from the pro-business Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and lobbyists from chemical companies."
The women, dubbed the Fabulous Five by a township resident, put a lot of time and energy into the bills, but "we are not giving up," Hastings promised. "We will try hard to kick it up again next session."
On a positive note, their efforts may have helped convince legislators to grant a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency request for nearly $800,000 to help companies transition away from TCE. The allocation from the environmental fund will evaluate the use and reduction of TCE around Minnesota and identify its potential health effects on communities. Up to $240,000 may be transferred to the commissioner of health.
At a June 5 meeting at City Hall, NCCG thanked Rep. Peter Fischer and Sen. Chuck Wiger for their support. Hastings also thanked Sen. Roger Chamberlain, "although we were disappointed in how he voted in the end." The Lino Lakes republican was "instrumental in initially advocating for us," she said.
"A lot of other people supported our bills,” added Hastings. “We will try this again. Our efforts were torpedoed. If anything, it probably lit a bigger fire under us to keep going."
Those attending the meeting were asked how Water Gremlin's TCE emissions impacted them. Page Stevens said it has affected her on a personal level.
"I've lived here 24 years. In 2006 I was diagnosed with leukemia; out of the blue. I underwent chemotherapy. Last year it mutated to a more aggressive cancer so I'm on a more aggressive chemo. Next week is my 30th round of chemo since 2013. It has taken the steam out of me and my poor husband. I open my door for fresh air and think, I'm probably not getting fresh air. I want changes and I want you ladies to keep fighting."
Page's husband Denny Stevens is her full-time caretaker. He's angry and he's scared.
"We bought the house of our dreams on Goose Lake and we can't even open the doors because we're afraid. Now they're (Water Gremlin) spewing more stuff and no one can stop it. Our own government could sign a bill to get TCE out but they don't. Because money is more important than people's health."
Sen. Wiger apologized to the group. "I'm sorry we let you down," he said. "The phase out of TCE will get accomplished. And it will spread throughout the country."
The senator acknowledged that he has been affected, too. Wiger has a daughter and grandson in the exposure area and that makes the issue personal. "You are doing this for my family," Wiger told the women, "and I so appreciate it."
It should be noted that a comprehensive public health assessment is expected this fall from the Department of Health (MDH) for all potential routes of exposure related to environmental contamination from Water Gremlin operations. MDH will include data collected from the investigation at the facility this summer, as well as information available through the MPCA air permitting process.