Homeowners and neighbors living near a White Bear Township manufacturer caught violating its permit and polluting the air for more than a decade have sued the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) over its handling of the case.
The homeowners, who have hired former Attorney General Lori Swanson to help represent them, say the state has refused to release public inspection records, e-mails, water and lead tests and data analysis about their exposure to the pollutants released over the past 15 years by the company, Water Gremlin.
“This is public information and we’re not getting it,” said Dean Salita, a personal injury lawyer representing more than 100 residents.
MPCA spokesman Darin Broton said the agency is reviewing the complaint.
“The MPCA receives hundreds of data practices requests each month, and is still compiling information for several of these requests regarding Water Gremlin,” he said.
Salita filed the lawsuit Tuesday morning, saying that he and Swanson have been trying to get the inspection records and other information from the MPCA for more than four months. He said he believes the records will help homeowners prove that the pollutants emitted by the company cause cancer, lung problems, neurological and birth defects as well as other illnesses from which they now suffer.
“Time is of the essence,” Salita said. “As we work through this lawsuit I’m hopeful the MPCA will abandon its coziness with Water Gremlin and return to its mission as an advocate of the people.”
The MPCA and Minnesota Department of Health found in January that Water Gremlin, which makes fishing sinkers and lead acid battery terminals, had not been accurately reporting emissions data for more than 15 years. The company exposed about 5,500 nearby residents to much higher levels of an industrial solvent called trichloroethylene, a carcinogen, than state health limits allow and in violation of its permit.
According to the Health Department, exposure to that solvent can increase the risk for kidney and liver cancer as well as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It could also cause heart defects as well as liver and immune system problems in babies.
Concentrations of the solvent in the air from the Water Gremlin releases, however, were below levels where health effects have been demonstrated in people, the Health Department found. A department 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.
Water Gremlin was using the solvent to coat its battery leads to prevent corrosion.
The MPCA asked Water Gremlin to shut down its coating operation in January, after finding that emissions from the plant were found to be as high as 100 times the state’s health limit. The company had been releasing high levels since 2002.
In March, Water Gremlin agreed to pay more than $7 million in a civil penalty and environmental project, and to stop using trichloroethylene.
Last week, pollution regulators again asked Water Gremlin to immediately shut down part of its manufacturing plant, saying the company’s new air emissions control equipment was still allowing too much pollution to escape. Tests found the company was contaminating the soil, groundwater, sediment and surface water on the plant site with another industrial solvent, dichloroethane, 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 refused to shut down its coatings line by the state’s 3 p.m. Thursday deadline and rejected the state’s findings. Instead, the company requested a meeting with MPCA Commissioner Laura Bishop at the company’s facilities in White Bear Township. The meeting was held Monday.
The company announced Tuesday afternoon that it would stop coating operations that use dichloroethane, or DCE, until a vapor mitigation system is installed.
Junya Inoue, Water Gremlin president, said in a statement that the company disagrees with “some of the MPCA’s conclusions.”
“We want our neighbors to know that the DCE vapors are limited to the air space immediately beneath our building and do not pose a risk to our employees, neighbors or the environment,” Inoue said.
Residents have been unsettled by how long the pollution occurred and many of them fear that the state has been downplaying its risks.
“They say there are no issues and not to worry and yet they settled for the second-largest settlement in state history,” said Kerri Luecke, who has scars from an aggressive skin cancer and a daughter who suffers from epileptic seizures. Luecke and her family lived in the neighborhood for nearly 24 years.
“It’s like you just settled for a pretty large amount there, yet it’s nothing for us to worry about?” she said. “We want the [MPCA] to be up front with their findings, and I’m not sure that is happening.”
Staff writer Jennifer Bjorhus contributed to this report. Greg Stanley • 612-673-4882