State pollution regulators have asked Water Gremlin to immediately shut down part of its manufacturing plant near White Bear Lake, citing tests showing still more contamination.
It’s the second time this year the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) has made that request of the company.
At a news briefing in St. Paul on Thursday, MPCA officials said the company’s new air emissions control equipment is still allowing too much pollution to escape and that recent tests show that the soil, groundwater, sediment and surface water on the plant site contain two toxic industrial solvents and, in some cases, lead.
In places, concentrations of the industrial solvents in the soil vapors beneath Water Gremlin’s plant were 33 times the state health limits, the MPCA said.
Water Gremlin rejected the state’s conclusions, and did not shut down its coatings line by the state’s 3 p.m. Thursday deadline. Instead, the company requested a meeting with MPCA Commissioner Laura Bishop at the company’s facilities in White Bear Township. The MPCA said the meeting was scheduled for Monday.
MPCA officials said they are “considering further action” to compel Water Gremlin to comply, including the possibility of shutting down the entire factory. That would be a first for the agency, whose enforcement philosophy is one of working with companies to gain compliance.
“We’re incredibly concerned with Water Gremlin,” MPCA Assistant Commissioner Craig McDonnell said. “We have significant concerns regarding the ongoing release of DCE into the soil underneath the building. We want to determine the extent and magnitude of those contaminations to determine how to move forward.”
The solvents at issue are trichloroethylene, or TCE, a carcinogen the company was ordered to stop using, and dichloroethylene, or DCE, a less toxic solvent Water Gremlin started using this spring as a TCE substitute.
Water Gremlin issued a statement saying it disagrees with the MPCA’s conclusions.
“We are sorry that we have created health concerns in the community,” said Carl Dubois, Water Gremlin’s vice president of international manufacturing. “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.”
In a letter Thursday to Bishop, company president Junya Inoue said the DCE detected does not pose a threat to anyone, and the DCE vapors are not in the soil but in the airspace beneath the building.
The company is on track to have a new vapor intrusion mitigation system installed by the end of the month, Inoue wrote.
So far, TCE has not been detected in private water wells in the neighborhood. But the MPCA is investigating whether the lead or chemicals have spread off site.
Jim Kelly, manager of the Minnesota Department of Health’s environmental surveillance and assessment section, said, “I don’t consider these findings to be of an urgent or imminent additional health concern for residents.
“This is really about preventing further contamination from reaching a point where those concerns might be much more heightened,” he said.
That is small consolation to area residents, still reeling from news earlier this year that Water Gremlin had been emitting TCE into the air at high levels for more than a decade. The area of concern is a 1½-mile radius around the plant at 4400 Otter Lake Road in White Bear Township, where an estimated 5,500 people live.
On Thursday, a small group of women with young children protested outside MPCA headquarters.
“These are the kids that are being poisoned by Water Gremlin,” said Vadnais Heights resident Michelle Block, holding her 6-month-old son. “I think a lot of people in the area are concerned about the long-term exposure.”
Block said her children spent a lot of time at her sister’s house near the plant. She and others said they aren’t satisfied with the MPCA asking for a partial shutdown.
“That’s not good enough,” Block said.
Also Thursday, the MPCA briefed elected officials and staff from affected east metro communities. Rep. Ami Wazlawik, DFL-White Bear Lake, said it’s “concerning” that a chemical the company just started using was already showing up in the environment.
“Legislators are frustrated, community members are frustrated,” Wazlawik said. “Are we doing things in a way that’s more helpful for businesses than for the community?”
The company is owned by Tokyo-based Okabe Co. Ltd., and makes fishing sinkers and lead terminals for car batteries at its plant in White Bear Township. It used the metal degreaser TCE to coat its battery leads to prevent corrosion.
Water Gremlin has had environmental compliance problems dating back nearly 20 years.
The MPCA first asked Water Gremlin to shut down its coating operation in January. It did. The MPCA then publicly revealed that TCE emissions from the plant were found to be as high as 100 times the state’s health limit and that the company had been releasing high levels of TCE since 2002.
News that the pollution went unchecked for so long angered area residents, who question the MPCA’s effectiveness and fear for their health. Long-term exposure to TCE is known to increase the risk of certain cancers and the risks of heart defects in babies, among other risks.
In March, Water Gremlin agreed to pay more than $7 million in a civil penalty and environmental project, and to stop using TCE.
A Minnesota Department of Health report concluded that the cancer rates in the neighborhood surrounding Water Gremlin were “virtually identical” to the cancer rates in the seven-county metro area.
Dean Salita, a personal injury lawyer working with area residents, disputes those findings. In an interview after the briefing, he said the state Department of Health’s study was “too limited,” and that area residents have suffered greater health problems.
“It’s becoming more and more clear that there was TCE all over White Bear Township,” Salita said. “I’m shocked by what took the MPCA so long to bring this to the forefront.”
Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683