VADNAIS HEIGHTS — Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) Commissioner Laura Bishop wants to assure residents the agencies are “doing their job.”
“Safety is paramount, and our job and MPCA’s mission is to protect the environment and human health,” Bishop said. “This (Water Gremlin) issue has been a central focus. We hope to get this past us at some point.”
The commissioner and staff from MPCA, the Department of Health (MDH), Department of Labor and Industry (DLI) and Ramsey County held a town hall-type meeting Dec. 11 at Jimmy’s Event Center to brief the community on Water Gremlin’s status.
Since the last area meeting, MPCA has found new violations at Water Gremlin, Bishop reported. “The company was not treating hazardous waste as hazardous. As a result of our inspection, MPCA issued 20 corrective actions in another administrative order.” (The Press reported on the pollution charges Nov. 13.)
Bishop acknowledged the community’s agitation and frustration. “Water Gremlin has continued to violate your trust. It has not been a good neighbor,” she said. “It is imperative they look out for the community they operate in. I know you’re frustrated with your government to hold the company accountable. MPCA has used every tool in our toolbox to hold them accountable. We have shut down operations and state agencies have taken them to court.”
The commissioner noted that her agency has issued financial penalties against the company “and will again for violating public trust.”
She added that the agency cannot shut down a company if its operations come back into compliance with state law. “That is the goal,” Bishop said. “These orders are to get Water Gremlin back into compliance.”
Jim Kelly, MDH environmental health division manager, brought the community up to date on Water Gremlin’s lead problems. “Lead is a known neurotoxin and a public health hazard,” he said. “Lead dust can be carried home by workers, transfer to vehicles and expose others.”
An increased blood lead level in children of Water Gremlin employees was first noticed in 2018, Kelly said. MDH strategized with the county, which was to work with Water Gremlin on a voluntary basis to prevent lead dust from leaving the facility.
That work was proceeding when in January 2019 the first report was received regarding a child of an employee with an elevated blood lead level — about 15 micrograms per deciliter — that demanded a more proactive response. In October, a second child was diagnosed with elevated blood levels. “By then, there were 12 children. That is when we consulted with DLI to end this practice,” Kelly said.
Both agencies filed an injunction in district court with help from the attorney general’s office. The judge ordered a multiphase cleanup, including short-term cleaning of the facility, sealing of floors, worker training, protective booties and worker hygiene improvements. Long term, temporary locker rooms must be brought in to create a separate area that is not contaminated with lead. The judge also ordered the facility be reconstructed to have permanent locker rooms with showers — considered standard practice in the lead industry.
The cleaning of employee residences is action in the order yet to be taken, Kelly added. (See separate story).
Kelly assured residents the agency will continue to hold community meetings to keep people informed.
Next up was MPCA division manager Jeff Smith. He assured residents there are no lead impacts in surface water off site of Water Gremlin. “Lead levels are not moving off site,” he iterated. The same for volatile organic compounds (VOC) in water and soil vapor. “There are no soil vapor concerns and there are no VOC emissions, or very little, beyond the building. That is a positive message.”
The manufacturing plant has undergone intensive, unannounced inspections on a regular basis. “We are out there every week, sometimes every day,” Smith said.
Water Gremlin’s new air emissions permit is still in the works, he added. Smith promised that the public will have time to review the draft permit before it is issued sometime in March or April.
“The company has been responsive to the agency’s requests,” Smith maintained. “They have invested significant time and resources. Sometimes they are slow to respond but they have been responsive to the agency. We want them back into compliance.”