State regulators are investigating whether airborne chemical emissions from a White Bear Township manufacturer may have affected the health of nearby residents.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) asked Water Gremlin Co. on Jan. 14 to shut down part of its manufacturing facility because it was emitting high levels of trichloroethylene into the air. That part of the plant remains closed, and the facility is no longer emitting the compound, officials said at a Thursday afternoon news briefing.
At times, the emissions were found to be as high as 10 times the level allowed by the company’s air quality permit, and that may have led to levels 100 times higher than the public safety limit, which is 2 micrograms per cubic meter of air.
State officials don’t know of anyone who has become sick or injured from the exposure, according to Jim Kelly, environmental surveillance and assessment section manager at the Minnesota Department of Health.
Kelly did, however, encourage any local residents concerned about health effects from the emissions to contact their doctor. They can also call the state at 651-201-4897.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies trichloroethylene as a carcinogen.
Water Gremlin employs about 265 people, mostly at its plant at 4400 Otter Lake Road, which is east of Interstate 35 and south of Hwy. 96. The company makes fishing sinkers and electrical contacts for batteries that are distributed around the world.
In a statement, the company apologized but reiterated that no one has been sickened by the emissions.
“We apologize for the concern and inconvenience this has caused,” said Carl Dubois, Water Gremlin’s vice president of international manufacturing. “We are working with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) to permanently resolve any issues by switching to an alternate solvent that is not a hazardous air pollutant. We will not restart our operations until we are in full compliance with MPCA requirements.”
The area of concern, covering a 1.5-mile radius from the plant’s address on Otter Lake Road, has about 5,500 residents.
The high emissions came to the attention of the MPCA on Jan. 11 in what agency officials would only describe as an exchange of information with Water Gremlin. The culprit appears to be a carbon absorber that was supposed to clean the gas from air suctioned up under factory hoods.
The device was not working properly and was fluctuating “quite wildly,” said Sarah Kilgriff, manager of the land and air compliance section of the MPCA. She said officials don’t know how long the equipment was malfunctioning. “We are still looking into historical information,” Kilgriff said.
It’s rare for the MPCA to request a complete shutdown, Kilgriff said, but the emissions in this case were serious enough to warrant it.
Trichloroethylene, often used as a metal degreaser, is a clear, nonflammable liquid or gas that can have no odor at low levels.
Long-term exposure at high levels can increase the risk of certain cancers, according to the state Health Department, such as kidney and liver cancers and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Exposure during the first eight weeks of a woman’s pregnancy can elevate the risks of heart defects in her baby; it can also pose risks for other vulnerable people such as children and the elderly.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) safety limit for workplace exposure to trichloroethylene is 55,000 micrograms per cubic meter of air, but the state limit for protecting all people is at a much lower 2 micrograms.
“We have alerted OSHA to the situation,” Kilgriff said.
A public information meeting is scheduled for 6:30 to 9 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 7, at White Bear Lake Central Middle School.