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Legislative auditor to investigate MPCA’s role in Water Gremlin controversy 

Water Gremlin
Anderson Companies
Water Gremlin, which makes fishing sinkers and lead acid battery terminals, had used trichloroethylene as a solvent to clean and coat its products. While the chemical isn’t banned in Minnesota, it can increase the risk of cancer.

In recent weeks, state Sen. Roger Chamberlain has urged an assortment of officials to investigate whether Minnesota regulators did enough to stop more than a decade of toxic pollution from a manufacturer in White Bear Township.

At least one has now taken the Lino Lakes Republican’s suggestion. Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles said Tuesday his office will look into the Water Gremlin controversy and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s role — when it can find time. The auditor is currently handling a raft of investigations into the Department of Human Services, among other work. 

“I think [Chamberlain] raises some very important concerns and we certainly have the authority and the capacity to address them,” Nobles said. “And as soon as we can, we will.”

In March, Water Gremlin agreed to pay $7 million in a legal settlement with MPCA and has twice shut down operations this year after the agency found what it says were dangerous emissions of the carcinogen trichloroethylene (TCE), and, later on, an alternative chemical. The MPCA also says Water Gremlin did not accurately report permit violations for at least 15 years.

Yet the agency has drawn ire and skepticism from some White Bear residents for not catching Water Gremlin’s problems sooner. Those concerns were amplified by a lawsuit filed last month against MPCA that claims it has withheld public records related to the case.

Chamberlain, whose district includes the White Bear area, said he wants to know if either the MPCA or Water Gremlin can be held criminally liable for emissions. While he has pushed for the Legislature to ban or restrict TCE, those measures won’t shed new light on what happened at Water Gremlin, Chamberlain said. 

“The citizens do not trust MPCA; they certainly do not trust Water Gremlin,” he said. “What we have now is kind of a logjam. Clearly something broke down in the process.”  

A legacy of pollution

Water Gremlin, which makes fishing sinkers and lead acid battery terminals, had used TCE as a solvent to clean and coat its products. While the chemical isn’t banned in Minnesota, it can increase the risk of cancer. The MPCA says Water Gremlin spewed TCE into the air at dangerous levels high enough to violate its clean air permit

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
State Sen. Roger Chamberlain
The company not only had breakdowns with equipment meant to prevent pollution, it failed to report its actual emissions to the state for more than 15 years, according to the MPCA.

After the plant first shut down in January, Water Gremlin reopened with new pollution control equipment and switched to an alternative product called FluoSolv WS. The main ingredient of FluoSolv is a chemical similar to TCE known as tDCE. 

While the MPCA says tDCE is considered to be safer than TCE, the MPCA shut down the plant’s coating operations in late August because it said Water Gremlin was releasing the new chemical beneath its plant rather than through proper equipment. At the time, Water Gremlin said the emissions were not a health threat.

While TCE can increase the risk of some types of cancer and cause birth defects, research by the state’s Department of Health suggests Water Gremlin emissions have not had a major effect on residents of White Bear Township. 

Overall cancer rates in the area between 2006 and 2017 were “virtually identical” to those elsewhere in the Twin Cities metro area, according to the Health Department. Data show typical numbers of women in the affected areas reporting children with birth defects that can be associated with TCE exposure.

Community concern rises

Still, the controversy has set off fury among local residents and sparked efforts from state lawmakers to ban or restrict TCE use in the state. Even after the MPCA levied fines and conducted investigations, some have also wondered if the state did enough to stop TCE emissions from Water Gremlin.

A law firm representing more than 100 people who live near Water Gremlin asked for a slate of records from the MPCA to investigate, but they claim the agency did not disclose all the information it was supposed to. In August, attorney Dean Salita and former Attorney General Lori Swanson filed a lawsuit to try to free more of those records. 

“These people live(d) or work(ed) at or near the facility and are concerned about the impact of these past emissions on themselves, their families, their health, and their properties,” the lawsuit says. “They are also concerned about whether regulatory actions to date have been sufficient to prevent ongoing harms.”

A map from the MPCA showing the "area of concern" for TCE exposure from Water Gremlin.
The MPCA did not respond to multiple requests for comment and it has told media it is still reviewing the lawsuit. On Aug. 28, MPCA spokesman Darin Broton told the Star Tribune Minnesota pollution regulations rely on companies to report their own emissions. “If the Legislature would like to change that rule, it should look at doing so,” he said.

The MPCA also told WCCO that Commissioner Laura Bishop “has asked staff how was Water Gremlin able to violate the public’s trust and what additional steps can the MPCA take to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”

Chamberlain, a Lino Lakes Republican, said he’s sympathetic toward the MPCA and doesn’t expect the agency can or will monitor “every plant that uses every amount of chemical.” He said the agency may have done all it could.

Yet Chamberlain noted the state’s settlement with Water Gremlin suggests the MPCA knew of problems with the company’s equipment since the early 2000s. In the last two weeks, Chamberlain has asked Nobles, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher, the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) and Gov. Tim Walz to investigate the MPCA and Water Gremlin. “If somebody screwed up, if they were negligent, got the wrong calculations, something, we have to know why,” Chamberlain said.

Fletcher and the BCA did not respond to requests for comment. Dennis Gerhardstein, a spokesman for Choi’s office, said the county attorney is “not an investigative agency.” But he said they are “undertaking a review of the concerns surrounding Water Gremlin.” 

So far, they have contacted the MPCA to get information that could help any investigations or enforcement action “that could be undertaken under the authority and powers of the county attorney as well as an interested investigative agency.”

Nobles can’t bring criminal charges. But he said his investigation will examine whether the MPCA has been transparent in its work and if it acted appropriately. “I think a lot of it has to do with who knew what when, and what did they do?” Nobles said.

In a written statement, Carl Dubois, the vice president of international manufacturing at Water Gremlin, said the company “respects Senator Chamberlain and his commitment to his constituents.”

“We remain focused on improving our processes and working with the MPCA to ensure that we resume our coating operations in a safe, mutually agreeable way,” he said.

New legislation possible

State Rep. Ami Wazlawik, a White Bear Lake DFLer, told MinnPost she does not expect new information from Nobles any time soon. Her biggest concern is that Water Gremlin starts complying with state regulators. She also did not fault the MPCA for the decade of pollution.

State Rep. Ami Wazlawik
State Rep. Ami Wazlawik
“To expect that the MPCA has the resources to closely monitor every single company that has a permit with them is not realistic,” she said. “They don’t have the people power to do that.”

To that end, Wazlawik said she and other lawmakers in the House are considering legislation that would give the agency more power and capacity to rein in companies that violate permits in the future.

Wazlawik and Chamberlain also promised to continue their efforts to ban or restrict TCE in the state, efforts that stalled last year in part because of opposition from the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber has said it doesn’t want to punish those using TCE within limits considered safe.

In the meantime, Wazlawik said the state is analyzing how TCE is used across the state. As part of its settlement with the state, Water Gremlin is also working to encourage other companies to switch to alternative solvents. The Chamber has said 80 known facilities use TCE in Minnesota. The chemical is also used as a stain remover.

Still, Chamberlain said he hopes new investigations are needed to bring accountability for White Bear Township. “We’re just pointing fingers,” he said of MPCA and Water Gremlin. “Time to get some clear information and fact.”

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Mike Hindin on 09/05/2019 - 02:10 pm.

    As a former permit holder, I want to know how they were allowed to leak or discharge this chemical under the plant. At the time flammable hazardous waste usable for energy costed about $100.00 per 55 gallon barrel. Non flammable chlorinated solvents were considerably more expensive hazardous waste to legally dispose of. We had to track how much solvent was purchased, how much went into product, how much went to legitimate hazardous waste disposal, air discharges and other losses. They should have known they were losing expensive clean solvent or not recovering approximate amount of used solvent as hazardous waste. The other alternative is distilling dirty solvent for reuse which also creates hazardous waste sludge.

    • Submitted by Sheri Smith on 09/05/2019 - 05:20 pm.

      Great comment. We believe Water Gremlin *knew* what they were doing. Potentially a deliberate act to avoid the air monitors which are situated around the plant. It may also have been their intent was to delay reporting an issue — which allowed them to continue to fill orders. Everything we’ve learned about this Company points at an organization with callous disregard for human health and the environment. There are too many examples for too many years for this to be anything but deliberate.

      Sheri Smith
      White Bear Lake
      NCCG — Neighborhood Concerned Citizens Group

      • Submitted by Colin Brownlow on 09/06/2019 - 10:29 am.

        That is it exactly. Yes TCE is a nasty organic, but to get the kind of releases of TCE and now its substitute DCE, you have to be grossly negligent in your operational practices. There are industry standards and engineering practices that do work to prevent releases to the environment. If you are operating in accordance with proven best or even standard practice you don’t see these kind of issues.

  2. Submitted by Peter Gove on 09/05/2019 - 08:32 pm.

    Sen. Chamberlain could have made sure his caucus supported the TCE ban bill in the last session and it likely would have been state law. He did not.

  3. Submitted by Kelly Tapkan on 09/07/2019 - 11:29 am.

    Regarding the statement that “research by the state’s Department of Health suggests that Water Gremlin emissions have not had a major effect on residents of White Gear Township”. I believe that is incorrect. I have been part of multiple meetings in which MDH has stated that they do not know with certainty what the current or long-term effects on residents surrounding Water Gremlin are from the TCE emissions.

    Water Gremlin emitted 6 times, 7 time ,8 times and in 2018 12 times their permitted level of VOCs. The bottom line is that this company did not have the right to expose the community to the health and environmental risks posed by TCE. THEY DO NOT HAVE THE RIGHT. Even if (miraculously) the 120 tons of TCE that was emitted last year (vs their 10 ton limit) somehow does not impact our health, Water Gremlin did not have the right to expose us to that kind of health and environmental risks. They are in violation of their permit and in violation of the Clean Air Act. They need to be held accountable.
    TCE is a nasty, nasty chemical. It is cheap and it is effective. That is why companies use it. TCE is a carcinogenic chemical that is also know to cause immunological and neurological health issues.

    Kelly Tapkan
    White Bear Lake resident

    • Submitted by Terry Robertson on 10/19/2019 - 10:16 am.

      The MN Department of Health, in their determination that there were no significant effects of the TCE emitted by Water Gremlin, neglected to take into account residents who have moved from the area. My family lived in the 4600 block of Otter Lake Road (Water Gremlin is at 4400) for more than 20 of the years of emission but have since moved. My daughter and I have recently been diagnosed with lymphoma and kidney cancer, respectively, both of which are possible major expected cancer outcomes of exposure. This is a major flaw in their study, since there may be others former residents who are affected, as well.

  4. Submitted by Kyle Richardson on 09/08/2019 - 03:37 pm.

    Our company is heavily regulated by federal, state, and local environmental agencies at all our locations (inside and outside of Minnesota). We have learned some hard lessons about agency executives and “special programs” that ultimately end up costing us more than the benefit we received. Water Gremlin reminds me of this situation. I cannot understand how a facility that is regularly inspected could somehow have avoided detection, despite the meager enforcement resources.

    Both Chamberlain and Wazlawik recognize the scope and magnitude of the problem to a point. Chamberlain seems to recognize MPCA’s role in this situation, whereas Wazlawik finds no fault. I think at this juncture it is reckless to conclude that the MPCA has clean hands here. In a recent press release, the MPCA information officer touted the “largest fine” distraction rhetoric in defense of the agency, yet that story tells nothing of the history between the company and agency, nor anything about the resolution of the enforcement or the amateurish way the MPCA agreement was administered. Then, there is the lack of transparency and withheld emails. We have to file a lawsuit to have access to public data? Sounds like PolyMet: The Sequel.

    The Auditor is the one that needs immediate staffing. Getting more personnel for the MPCA without addressing the fundamental leadership problems presents no real solution, just more cost. Using the findings of the Audit, the MPCA and legislature would be better positioned to act, rather than react. Focusing on TCE alone is further rubbish. Chlorinated solvents in general should be debated if the legislature truly wants to be effective.

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