ST. PAUL — Water Gremlin and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) have a difference of opinion.
After finding more contamination at the manufacturing plant in White Bear Township, pollution regulators asked Water Gremlin to voluntarily cease operation of its coating process.
Water Gremlin refused to comply. This is the company that illegally spewed a toxic chemical called trichloroethylene, or TCE, into the air for at least 17 years. The company agreed to discontinue use of TCE in a stipulation agreement signed March 1. That same agreement required Water Gremlin to complete a remediation assessment of possible soil and groundwater contamination at its facility.
At a media briefing Aug. 15, pollution regulators announced that more issues have been found.
Most concerning, according to Sarah Kilgriff, land and air compliance manager, is the dichloroethylene, or DCE, discovered under the building. DCE is the main chemical in FluoSolv, a solvent Water Gremlin is using as a replacement for TCE.
“Obviously, there is a pathway for DCE to get under the slab,” Kilgriff said.
High levels of TCE have also been found in soil vapor below the building. In some places, solvents were 33 times the state health limits, according to MPCA. “Relatively low levels” of TCE were found in shallow groundwater not used for drinking and lead was detected in soil sediments and surface water on the site in relatively low concentrations.
Assistant MPCA Commissioner Craig McDonnell told reporters the agency has significant concerns regarding release of DCE into the soil. “We want to know the magnitude of those contaminants,” he said. “We believe the best course of action is for Water Gremlin to cease operations using FluoSolv until corrective actions are taken.”
The company responded negatively to the agency’s request, stating it disagreed with many of the conclusions made public by the MPCA.
“First and foremost, we want our community to know DCE vapors found beneath our manufacturing building do not pose a threat to our workers, our neighbors or the environment,” maintained Carl Dubois, vice president of international manufacturing. “No data suggests that the vapors will move beyond our building footprint. No data suggests a liquid release. No data suggests that soils have been impacted.”
Dubois pointed out that air is being monitored at five locations on Water Gremlin property since March 1. During this time, he said, the average annual DCE standard set by MPCA has not been exceeded.
“We are sorry that we have created health concerns in the community,” Dubois continued. “We have taken measures over the past several months to ensure that we can continue to operate in an environmentally responsible way that poses no threat to the health of our neighbors and workers. The trust of our community is important to us and we will continue to work hard to earn it.”
The company sent MPCA Commissioner Laura Bishop a six-page letter the morning of Aug. 15 signed by President Junya Inoue defending its control measures. He invited Bishop and her staff to visit Water Gremlin to see the improvements for themselves and discuss a course of action before releasing what he called “misinformation.”
A spokesperson for Water Gremlin watchdogs, the Neighborhood Concerned Citizens Group, said they were “in shock” that the company told MPCA “no” to the shutdown request.
“We understand Water Gremlin sees things differently than the MPCA and that Water Gremlin thinks the MCPA isn’t interpreting the data correctly,” said board member Leigh Thiel. “We are skeptical about this assertion. What is happening today is similar to what the record shows happened in 2004, in 2001 and, potentially even before then. The record shows Water Gremlin is a company that has a history of making mistakes over and over again. They need to shut down until MPCA says they are confident in Water Gremlin’s ability to operate without harming residents, workers and the environment, both short term and long term.”
Jim Kelly, manager of environmental surveillance and assessment with the Department of Health, doesn’t consider the findings an urgent or imminent health concern for residents.
“This is about preventing further contamination reaching a point where those concerns are heightened,” Kelly said. “I commend MPCA for taking action to halt these releases now before a point where it could reach neighboring properties.”
According to Crague Biglow, MPCA site remediation supervisor, TCE was found in groundwater samples 20 years ago, something he said is not unusual and was not a concern at the time. “Levels are not that high but we’re taking another look. Our concerns are the potential to impact groundwater.”
The agency is requiring Water Gremlin to submit an action plan for all contaminants and to promptly install a mitigation system that pulls vapors from volatile organic compounds like DCE from the soil.
Airborne lead levels will also be monitored near the property.
McDonnell said they are considering further action to compel Water Gremlin to cease operations.
“That is all I can say at this point. We will determine the extent and magnitude of this. If there is a human health threat or threat to the environment, we will make sure we are taking appropriate action, including shut down.”
The assistant commissioner added the agency has “significant concerns” about ongoing release of pollutants. “We are incredibly concerned with Water Gremlin and their ability to prevent this. We are holding Water Gremlin accountable for air emissions and taking issues incredibly seriously.”
Legislators weigh in on pollution issue
A report showing that DCE is leaking out of the facility after only five months was the last thing Rep. Peter Fischer expected to see. “It is highly concerning and raises a lot of questions,” Fischer said. “How responsible is Water Gremlin being to the community in handling the chemicals? At a minimum, it seems they are incompetent.”
Legislators were briefed via webinar by MPCA prior to the Aug. 15 press briefing. “The big question as I listened this morning,” Fischer said, “does a self-reporting system still work in today’s business model? I don’t have the answer but it’s something we need to talk about. It doesn’t seem we have a good process. Most businesses do the right thing and want to be good citizens. They’ve done things that make them look like a bad neighbor.”
Sen. Chuck Wiger feels that steps taken to prevent exposure to toxic chemicals are not working. In a statement released later in the day, Wiger said: “This failure betrays our communities’ trust and requires the immediate voluntary shutdown of Water Gremlin until infrastructure is in place to prevent further exposure.”