The judge overseeing the cleanup of toxic lead dust at Water Gremlin affirmed the state’s right to intervene in the situation on Wednesday, rejecting the White Bear Township manufacturer’s objection that the state was overreaching its authority.
“The migration of lead from Water Gremlin to employee cars and homes is a public health nuisance,” Ramsey County District Judge Leonardo Castro said. The “take-home” lead contamination not only affects employees and their families, but also everyone else who comes into contact with them, he said.
“It’s unreasonable interference of the public’s right not to be exposed to lead,” Castro said.
There are no regulations or rules about tracking lead from the workplace, Castro noted. “Why?” he asked. “Because it’s not supposed to happen.”
Castro called the company’s argument that the state hasn’t proven that lead poisoning suffered by children of employees was caused by lead dust from Water Gremlin “grossly inaccurate.”
Castro’s opening remarks came as lawyers met in court for the first time since the company reopened Tuesday. Production at the plant, which makes fishing gear and lead terminals for batteries, resumed Wednesday morning. Wednesday’s hearing focused on hammering out more long-term solutions to controlling lead dust at the plant and preventing it from migrating.
Lead is a dangerous neurotoxin, particularly for children. It can lower IQs and slow development.
Even as one cleanup plan unfolded, still more environmental problems at Water Gremlin came to light.
On Tuesday night, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) hit Water Gremlin with a scathing administrative order accusing it of failing for years to comply with hazardous waste regulations. The hazardous waste included used oil and other materials that contained lead and trichloroethylene, a cancer-causing industrial solvent the company used for decades before it was ordered to stop earlier this year in one of the largest enforcement actions in MPCA history.
“The hazardous waste was not rapidly and thoroughly recovered and had the potential to release to the land and water and threaten the human health and environment,” inspectors wrote. “Employees were freely allowed to walk from inside to outside of the facility, potentially tracking hazardous waste lead and lead-contaminated wastes outside.”
During inspections that ran to late September, the MPCA found used oil dripping on the ground at the Water Gremlin facility. Leaks of hazardous waste containing lead and trichloroethylene were found on floors, walls and equipment throughout the building. The concrete floors had clear cracks in them, providing an easy pathway for the contaminated material to seep into groundwater.
Inspectors also found that the company was collecting and storing some of the waste in leak pans that were kept uncovered on the floor, a violation of state law.
For years, inspectors said, Water Gremlin illegally misrepresented its operations, calling itself a “no exposure” facility, or one that does not expose pollutants from industrial materials to stormwater.
In reality, the company has been generating hazardous waste since at least 2010, inspectors found. They said Water Gremlin failed to get required industrial stormwater permits, properly store used oil and clean up leaks and also failed to prepare required emergency plans with police and fire departments.
The MPCA ordered the company to make nearly two dozen corrective actions, including storing, labeling and disposing of hazardous waste according to state laws. The company was also given three days to clean up the leaks of lead, oil and trichloroethylene from floors, walls and equipment.
Water Gremlin will also need to complete required emergency plans and permitting within a month.
Water Gremlin executive Carl Dubois disputed the accuracy of the allegations. “Water Gremlin is assessing the MPCA’s interpretations, as a number would result in unintended consequences, such as lead oxide being disposed of rather than recycled as per standard industry practices,” he said. “Water Gremlin intends to continue working cooperatively with the MPCA.”
The new administrative order is unrelated to the company’s recent shutdown by the state Department of Labor and Industry over lead being tracked off-site and poisoning 12 children of employees.
Under the evolving lead-control plan, Water Gremlin will bring in two 40-foot decontamination trailers containing lockers that employees will use to enter and exit the plant. It will also institute a practice of employees wiping themselves down before exiting to ensure they aren’t carrying out lead. The company will also have to upgrade the plant to create modern changing facilities with showers.
Work is being overseen by Wenck Associates Inc.
According to court documents, at least two other companies in Minnesota manufacture lead products: Federal Cartridge Ammunition in Anoka, and Gopher Resource in Eagan. Both have showers to decontaminate workers, like those the state wants Water Gremlin to use.
Water Gremlin has been cleaning employee cars, although the state reported that efforts haven’t been successful. According to court documents, many vehicles showed “alarmingly high” lead levels after the cleaning.
Lawyers for the state suggested replacing the carpeting, but Castro said he would not order that. Instead, he ordered the firm to focus on getting the car seats, at least, below 40 micrograms per square foot, the safety threshold for hard-surface floors in a home.
The company also agreed to clean the homes of anyone who was a full-time employee of Water Gremlin in the last two years, focusing on entryways and laundry areas, to bring them to residential safety standards. Castro ordered the company to contact people who worked at Water Gremlin part-time or temporarily over that time period to see if they want their homes tested and cleaned.
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