WHITE BEAR LAKE — The watchdog group founded to hold Water Gremlin accountable for toxic air emissions says the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) is failing to enforce imposed limits.
The White Bear Township company is operating in direct violation of terms of the stipulation agreement with MPCA, note members of the Neighborhood Concerned Citizens Group (NCCG).
Section “tt” in that agreement, signed March 1 between the MPCA commissioner and the president of Water Gremlin, states that exceedance of the 70 micrograms per cubic meter daily limit of FluoSolv, or DCE (dichloroethylene), means the company must reduce the amount released and set a new, lower, daily limit. That number can return to 70 micrograms when laboratory results show Water Gremlin no longer exceeds the preset amount.
“MPCA has been ignoring section 'tt' by pretending it doesn't exist,” said Leigh Thiel, NCCG board member, at a July City Hall meeting. “We are showing them, 'Look, here is where Water Gremlin is in violation: six instances 50 to 100% over the limit; 10 where emissions were 100 to 300% over and four times when they exceeded 300%.”
The MPCA website has a graph that shows cumulative total emissions of volatile organic compounds from Water Gremlin, including DCE emissions from FluoSolv. After four months, Water Gremlin is almost halfway to its annual emissions limit of 90 tons.
“That is concerning to people with impacted immune systems,” noted NCCG President Sherry Hastings, adding citizens are fearful about health impacts and environmental damages from the chemicals.
The neighborhood group claimed a small win in its efforts to keep Water Gremlin in check last month when MPCA denied an extension to get its pollution equipment in working order. However, the $500 per day fine imposed by the agency until testing was completed didn't amount to much.
According to Hastings, the company immediately filed a complaint after the denial, as allowed per the stipulation agreement, and the penalty stopped. “We were told by MPCA they will only pay $2,000,” she said.
Water Gremlin, maker of lead fishing lures and battery terminals, has been required to sample air at five locations near the edge of its property for a number of volatile organic compounds, including DCE. Samples are collected for 24 hours every three days and analyzed by Pace Analytical, an independent environmental firm.
Until recently, sampling results were going directly to Water Gremlin. That was another point of contention to the NCCG. Hastings said the company was receiving emissions data first and then forwarding results to MPCA. “That was unacceptable to our community,” maintained Hastings, who iterated she mistrusts a company that has violated terms of its air quality permit since at least 2002.
So, like they've been doing for the last five months, the NCCG emailed MPCA, “copying everyone under the sun,” asking that the process be changed. “We were told by Jeff Smith (MPCA industrial division director) that Pace will be sending results directly to MPCA,” Hastings said, chalking up another small win for the five women who serve on the NCCG board.
Meanwhile, Water Gremlin continues to test its pollution control equipment, a process that was only supposed to take three or four weeks (see side story).
The neighborhood group contends that Water Gremlin is a “serial violator” and should not be allowed to continue operations unless its emissions fall within state standards to protect those living nearby.
Water Gremlin got in trouble with MPCA when the company admitted its pollution control equipment was malfunctioning, resulting in release of toxic TCE that far exceeded its allowable limit, a violation dating back at least 17 years. The offending carcinogen is no longer used by Water Gremlin in its manufacturing process. The replacement solvent is DCE, a chemical the company considers “non-hazardous,” according to Thiel.
Not much is known about the alternative, but citizens are worried. MPCA has agreed to install two more air monitors, one at Birch Lake Elementary School and one at Columbia Park, to test how far emissions are traveling. The agency has also committed to do additional testing of Lambert Creek and surrounding wetlands.
“Our purpose is to understand the impact of pollutants from Water Gremlin,” said Hastings. “We want to understand what happened in the past and protect the future. People should know we are not done with this.”