The Water Gremlin factory in White Bear Township, shuttered by state regulators on Monday over concerns about lead contamination, will remain closed until midday Friday but can partly reopen after that if a judge approves a cleanup plan.
At a hearing Thursday morning, Ramsey County District Judge Leonardo Castro partly approved the state's request to extend an emergency 72-hour shutdown, saying he was trying to balance the safety of workers' children poisoned by lead dust with the livelihoods of employees and the business needs of Water Gremlin Co.
The judge also said he wants third-party supervision of the remediation at the company, which makes lead fishing sinkers and battery terminals.
The clock is ticking now for state officials and the company to hammer out a cleanup plan due in court by 11:30 a.m. Friday. It will likely focus on better industrial hygiene training — employees speak at least a half-dozen languages at the plant — and cleaning up the fine lead dust, shavings and filings that employees have been tracking home. The remediation will include cleaning employees' vehicles and vehicle floor mats as well as their homes, in addition to areas of the plant itself.
It's possible that the state and the company will submit two separate plans on Friday and will have to negotiate. If Castro approves the plan, the company can restart what he characterized as a "reduced operation" over the weekend.
About a dozen Water Gremlin employees filed into the St. Paul courtroom Thursday morning to show their support for the company. Afterward, some expressed mixed feelings about the judge's decision.
"Twenty-four hours is definitely better than a long-term shutdown," said Cher Thao.
Thao said he's worked at Water Gremlin for 11 years and feels confident that he and his family are safe. His children have been tested and are healthy, he said. "I feel bad for those children, but I'm also worried about everybody's livelihood," he said.
The company told the Star Tribune that it will pay employees through the shutdown, and on Thursday, Water Gremlin executive Carl Dubois said the company is committed to responding to all concerns raised by the state.
The state Department of Labor and Industry, which oversees occupational safety and ordered the Water Gremlin shutdown, expressed satisfaction with Castro's decision. In an interview, Labor and Industry Commissioner Nancy Leppink called Castro's extension "a good result" that "keeps things moving."
Later, the Minnesota Department of Health, the Department of Labor and Industry and St. Paul-Ramsey County Public Health issued a joint statement saying they had asked to extend the shutdown because of the risk to children.
"Lead poisoning can cause learning, behavior and health problems in children," they said. "Lead exposure before or during pregnancy has been linked to miscarriages, premature births and stillbirths."
It's important to have children tested for lead in their blood even if they seem healthy, the agencies added, because "high blood-lead levels in children can be difficult to detect and can cause harm to children's nervous systems and brains."
They encouraged employees to get free blood-lead testing and employment services offered at the Vadnais Sports Center on Thursday and Friday. Current and former employees can find more information at a special Ramsey County website about Water Gremlin., https://tinyurl.com/y5wgyvvy.
Water Gremlin has been shut down since Monday, when Leppink ordered the closure after reviewing evidence of lead poisoning in children of some of the plant's employees and getting results from a weekend inspection that showed that industrial hygiene problems at the plant had not been fixed.
At Thursday's hearing, Special Assistant Attorney General Peter Surdo described the situation as "a very severe crisis."
The company may need to install showers for employees, Surdo said, a safety feature that he said would go beyond measures at other companies processing lead in Minnesota. Under occupational safety rules from the U.S. Department of Labor, companies processing lead must have shower facilities for employees, and ensure they use them, when the ambient lead in the facility is above 50 micrograms per cubic meter.
Water Gremlin's lawyer told the court that the company tested below that level and cannot commit to installing showers.
Other actions discussed were adding high-powered vacuums and tacky floor mats to prevent lead dust from traveling, and changing the layout of the plant so that employees don't recontaminate themselves.
Thaddeus Lightfoot, a lawyer for Water Gremlin, told the court that the company "has implemented a tremendous number of measures" to address concerns about lead dust and improve safety practices, including hiring a new industrial hygiene professional. There's no need to keep the plant closed to address the concerns, he said.
"If this facility is shut down for any extended period, that will threaten the financial viability of the company," Lightfoot said.
Water Gremlin, which employs 313 people, was founded in 1949 and still uses the old-fashioned logo of a green cartoon gremlin holding a fishing rod, although fishing sinkers are now a small part of its business. It's now a subsidiary of Okabe Co. Ltd., a Tokyo-based manufacturer, and describes itself as "the leading supplier of battery terminals to the North and South American battery markets."
The company also has a history of pollution violations. Part of Water Gremlin's operations were already shut down over pollution stemming from solvents used in its coating operations. In March, the company paid one of the largest civil penalties ever imposed by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, for emitting tons of toxic trichloroethylene into the air for many years.
Monday's closure followed a weekend plant inspection.
At least 12 children of Water Gremlin employees have elevated blood-lead levels, which St. Paul-Ramsey County Public Health investigators traced to lead dust that workers carried home on their clothes and shoes and in their vehicles. Two of the children tested above the state health safety level of 15 micrograms per deciliter, a level that presents "a particularly serious health risk" for a child.
Some former employees have voiced anger and concern for their families' safety, with one employee who left in August saying he worked with machines that spurted hot lead with little more than gloves and glasses.
But many employees have defended the company's practices. Dozens demonstrated at the State Capitol on Tuesday.
Karl Procaccini, Gov. Tim Walz's general counsel, attended Thursday's hearing. Walz later issued a statement saying: "I am encouraged to see the court agreeing with the Commissioners of Health and Labor & Industry that there are serious concerns about this company's role in causing lead poisoning in children."