WHITE BEAR LAKE — Persistence paid off for the watchdog group following Water Gremlin’s every move when it succeeded in getting a meeting with the governor. 

Sherry Hastings, who leads the Neighborhood Concerned Citizens Group (NCCG), wouldn’t take no for an answer when she contacted the office of Gov. Tim Walz asking for an audience. The group of four women from White Bear Township wanted the governor to hear their concerns about Water Gremlin, a neighboring company that released high levels of toxic TCE into the air for at least 17 years.

Hastings follows the governor on social media, she said, and pointed out to his staff that the state’s chief executive had time for turkey and pheasant hunting; surely he had a half hour for them. It worked. The four board members met with Walz and Commissioner Laura Bishop, head of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, in a private meeting Oct. 7 at the Capitol. 

The nonprofit NCCG formed last March after the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and Department of Health held a joint community meeting at North Campus to discuss the environmental and human health impact of the chemical emissions.  

Her takeaway from the meeting was the governor’s commitment to phasing out TCE in Minnesota, said member Kelly Tapkan. 

NCCG members worked closely with area legislators last session on bills to ban TCE. A bill passed the House but never made it to the Senate floor. They intend to renew their efforts at the Capitol in 2020. 

“TCE is a nasty chemical,” Tapkan noted. “It shouldn’t be used anywhere.” 

County Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt applauded the group for their work. “You formed in March. By then, bill deadlines are close. It was amazing how far you got to getting a bill passed.” 

At their biweekly community meeting Oct. 9 at City Hall, Hastings mentioned that they are collaborating with nonprofits to “move forward” with efforts to ban TCE. Minnesota would be the first state to do so. 

The women are doing other work behind the scenes regarding Water Gremlin’s actions. In an attempt to hold the company accountable, they have filed complaints with the Environmental Protection Agency, according to member Leigh Thiel. “EPA is the organization that can actually do something from a criminal charge perspective. The complaints are in alignment with everything we have talked about to date,” she said. “We don’t know who knows about this or cares, but it’s one thing we did. Citizens can file EPA complaints, as well. There is a presumption that some have done that.”

NCCG board members hope to see a criminal review and eventual charges against Water Gremlin for violating its air quality permit and infractions regarding the stipulation agreement signed March 1 with the MPCA.

“There may be criminal charges going on behind the scenes,” Tapkan added. “The tricky part is we don’t know. There have been more conversations about it recently, we don’t know if it’s being pursued. From our perspective, criminal charges are right and just.”

At their meeting with the governor, members also suggested a review of MPCA’s handling of the Water Gremlin case.

“We’re not happy with everything MPCA has done,” Tapkan added. “We feel strongly that some things should have been done differently and better.” 

Added Thiel, “One thing we talked to the governor about is the citizen voice. As a leader of regulatory agencies, how can you create a culture where action can be taken upon the citizen voice? White Bear has us, but what about people in Rosemount near Spectro Alloys? Who is watching out for them?”

The women are grateful for area legislators who have become proponents of their cause. They promise to continue their focus on monitoring soil and water test results at the Water Gremlin site, and remediation efforts. They will continue holding monthly community meetings for anyone interested in their advocacy work. See wbanccg.org for more information. 

In the meantime, Water Gremlin’s battery terminal coating process remains closed down while the company tests a nontoxic, water-based solvent. 

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