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.
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.”
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.
“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.”