Dozens of Water Gremlin workers, some with children in tow, protested at the State Capitol on Tuesday, demanding that the company’s production lines reopen so they can return to work.
The demonstration came one day after Nancy Leppink, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry, ordered the 72-hour shutdown of the plant, citing the company’s failure to control lead dust that has poisoned at least 12 children of workers. A court hearing scheduled for Thursday will determine whether Water Gremlin, which employs 313 people in White Bear Township and has a history of pollution violations, will remain closed.
The state said it acted to protect the health of workers and their families from a toxic dust believed to have been carried home on their shoes and clothing. While some former workers have spoken out about their fears of illness, current employees have organized to try to save their jobs.
Tuesday’s protest outside the Capitol turned into a meeting with Leppink, other officials and the staff of Gov. Tim Walz, who brought the demonstrators into the governor’s reception room so they would not have to stand in the cold.
Sue Vang, a 29-year-old St. Paul resident in the group, said he works as a die cast operator at Water Gremlin.
“Let us work,” Vang said. “They’re shutting us down because of health concerns, and OK, but it’s up to the individual to do proper personal hygiene.”
Vang was referring to work procedures for eliminating the risk of lead contamination, such as hand washing.
Leng Vue, a 31-year-old father of three and also a die cast operator, brought his 2-year-old son to the Capitol. Vue said that state regulators should have worked more with the company to correct problems. Water Gremlin was treated “unfairly,” he said after the meeting.
“Now they’re messing with peoples’ lives,” said Vue. “That’s my only source of income. Do they want me to go on welfare?”
Vue said the employee group had a petition with 250 signatures that it planned to send to the governor.
While the 72-hour shutdown order remains in effect, Labor and Industry and the Department of Health both requested an injunction to extend it until the company no longer presents a health threat.
“It is shocking that Water Gremlin has been aware that lead is present at elevated levels of its employees’ children, and has not successfully prevented their exposure,” Attorney General Keith Ellison wrote in the state’s complaint for injunction.
A hearing on extending the shutdown is scheduled for Thursday in Ramsey County District Court.
Company blames workers
Water Gremlin makes lead sinkers and lead terminals for batteries. A subsidiary of Tokyo-based manufacturer Okabe Co. Ltd., Water Gremlin is a major supplier of terminals for batteries in vehicles in North America.
Water Gremlin executive Carl Dubois issued a statement Tuesday saying that the company has taken numerous actions to mitigate take-home lead. He said it is paying all employees during the shutdown, and wanted to dispel rumors that employees would be forced to use vacation time to pay for lost hours. The company will work with regulators to improve the health and safety of workers and their families.
“Water Gremlin is proud to employ 340 Minnesotans, and we are working hard to ensure that their livelihoods are not impacted during this challenging time.”
The company kept a low profile until January, when the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency revealed the company had been emitting tons of a dangerous solvent called trichloroethylene, or TCE, into the air for years. The company agreed to pay more than $7 million to settle violations of its air permit, including a $4.5 million civil penalty, the second largest in state history. The company’s coating operations have been shut down following new pollution problems with a replacement solvent, and vapor intrusion into the building.
On Monday the company issued a statement blaming workers for the elevated lead levels, saying some are not following industrial hygiene protocols.
Leppink refuted that statement Tuesday.
“Under state law, employers have the responsibility of protecting the safety and health of their workers and to prevent hazards and risks in their workplace. [Water Gremlin] is responsible,” she said.
Leppink said employees need to follow company rules, but Water Gremlin did not take proper steps to ensure that workers — many of them contract workers who do not speak fluent English — understand the rules and know how to abide by them.
“You have to supervise and reinforce and take action if employees don’t comply with the rules,” she said. “Then, at the very end of the day, you can start to hold employees accountable. You discipline them. If they don’t respond to discipline you need to terminate them. There’s no evidence this is the kind of oversight Water Gremlin had.”
She said one Water Gremlin manager, when asked about lax safety enforcement, replied, “Well, what can you do?”
The company’s diverse workforce includes many Hmong and Karen employees. Court documents show workers speak nine different languages.
A pattern of lead problems
County and state officials first detected a pattern of lead poisoning in children with at least one parent who worked at Water Gremlin in late 2018, according to court documents. Ultimately, they found at least 12 children with elevated lead levels — two above the state health safety threshold of 15 micrograms per deciliter, enough to present serious effects such as lowered IQs and learning disabilities.
During recent plant inspections investigators found lead contamination on the floor of the employee locker room, and witnessed unsafe practices including: employees using the same locker for personal items and contaminated articles, walking through contaminated areas with street shoes, wearing protective clothing improperly and using personal cellphones in the production area.
They also documented ineffective training that wasn’t in the employees’ language, and employees not attending safety trainings.
“Investigators found incredibly high concentrations of lead in the Water Gremlin employees’ cars,” according to the state’s complaint, “and elevated levels in certain areas of their homes, such as entryway floors and closets.”
One of the investigators filed a declaration saying employees told him they had worn dirty protective clothing from work home in the past, and that the company relies on pictures for some of its health and safety training for employees with limited English.
Jamokia Curry, who was a machine operator at Water Gremlin for two years before leaving in August, said he felt the workplace was not safe.
Curry said he’s angry that he was unknowingly carrying home a toxic pollutant. The company showers didn’t work, he said, and they were used as mop closets. The only safety gear he was given, he said, were gloves and “some glasses for protecting your eyes.”
“You’ve got hot lead shooting out of these machines,” he said, adding that the lead frequently burned holes through his gloves.
Curry’s daughter Ja’Naea, now 4, is one of the 12 children with elevated blood lead levels, said Curry’s wife, Amber. She has behavioral issues and “isn’t your normal 4-year-old,” she said.
Amber Curry said she worries that lead exposure hurt their infant son, who was born prematurely and with a serious intestinal birth defect.
Curry said she doesn’t understand why health officials didn’t move against Water Gremlin more quickly.
“My daughter tested positive last year,” she said. “They didn’t do anything until there were 12 kids who tested positive.”
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