The state is ordering a Twin Cities manufacturer to shut down, saying the children of its workers have been poisoned by lead dust carried home from the factory.
The Minnesota Department of Health and the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry announced the action Monday, after inspecting the plant Saturday and finding that Water Gremlin was failing to control workers’ exposure to the dust. Workers can unwittingly carry the heavy lead dust home on their shoes, clothing and in their vehicles.
Water Gremlin employs more than 200 people at its plant in White Bear Township, northeast of St. Paul, which makes lead terminals for batteries. The company is a major supplier of battery terminals for vehicles in North America, also makes fishing sinkers.
Local public health investigators recently determined that at least 12 children of Water Gremlin workers have elevated levels of lead in their blood — two above the state health safety level of 15 micrograms per deciliter, enough to present “a particularly serious health risk for children.”
Officials declined to describe the effects on those children, but said that risks at those levels include brain damage, decreased IQ and impaired learning and development. St. Paul-Ramsey health investigators identified one child with lead levels above the safety margin in January; a second was identified in the last few weeks, Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said in a call with reporters.
The second case of childhood lead poisoning made it clear that the company’s efforts to reduce the exposure and improve industrial hygiene weren’t working, Malcolm said, and more drastic measures were necessary.
“This was the tipping point,” Malcolm said.
The company did not deny the state’s findings, but blamed its workers for failing to follow hygiene practices.
“Any lapse in employee industrial hygiene practices is the top contributing factor to an increase in an employees’ blood lead level and the inadvertent home exposure,” Carl Dubois, vice president of international manufacturing for Water Gremlin, said in a statement. “To ensure the safety of our employees and their families, hygiene training and policies have long been in place. If necessary, the company will utilize disciplinary action for employees who do not follow those policies.”
The company’s statement said it had been working with Ramsey County starting in August 2018 to step up its workers’ hygiene policies.
“We were saddened to learn today that the enhanced campaign did not result in positive changes for some of our employees’ families. We are working with Ramsey County, the Minnesota Department of Health and the Department of Labor (OSHA) to immediately implement protective actions.”
In a statement Monday, Gov. Tim Walz called the situation “heartbreaking” and “unacceptable.”
The statement went on: “We will continue to do everything in our power to protect children from this serious public health threat and prevent any further wrongdoing by this company in Minnesota.”
Water Gremlin, a subsidiary of Tokyo-based manufacturer Okabe Co. Ltd., has a diverse workforce, including many Latino, Hmong and Karen workers. Crews from the state Department of Health and St. Paul-Ramsey County Public Health are working with employees to make sure that everyone at risk has a blood test, and that contaminated homes and vehicles are cleaned.
A team of about 30 state and local officials set up in a second-floor lobby of the Vadnais Sports Center on Monday to offer a “triage” point for Water Gremlin employees. Translators were on hand, while the state health department offered free lead testing for employees and their children. Other agencies set up booths with unemployment, workforce and job counselors.
The booths were quiet Monday afternoon as word of the company’s closure reached employees. One mother, who declined to be interviewed, brought in her two young daughters for a lead test.
“Whether they need résumé support, training or any other help, we’ll be here all week,” said Ling Becker, director of workforce solutions for Ramsey County.
The Department of Labor and Industry issued its temporary order Monday morning, requiring Water Gremlin to stop industrial production of lead products at its plant for 72 hours. On Monday afternoon the agency, along with the Minnesota Department of Health, asked a Ramsey County District Court judge to issue an injunction to extend the shutdown until the company takes all the necessary remediation steps to protect workers and their families.
Malcolm, the health commissioner, called the situation “unique.”
“As far as I’m understanding we’ve not seen issues of this magnitude with other companies in Minnesota who may be in similar lines of business,” Malcolm said.
Stephanie Yendell, who supervises the Health Risk Intervention Unit at the Department of Health, said there are other businesses in Minnesota with manufacturing processes that include lead. They routinely test workers’ blood for lead — usually every year or six months — and send the results to the Health Department. They do see workers with elevated levels of lead, but not their children, she said.
Yendell noted that the lead levels in the blood of Water Gremlin workers did not reach the level requiring OSHA to remove workers.
Minnesota OSHA Compliance inspected the plant twice in the last five years, according to the state Department of Labor and Industry. In April 2015, the company was assessed a penalty of $2,800 after an inspection found two violations regarding personal protection equipment and ensuring all surfaces are as free of lead as possible. A March 2018 inspection prompted by a complaint found no violations.
Monday’s news carried Water Gremlin’s extensive environmental problems to a new level. The manufacturer has been under pressure from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency for most of the year for excessive air emissions from toxic solvents used in operations to coat the battery terminals it makes.
After emitting high levels of trichloroethylene, or TCE, into the air for years, Water Gremlin agreed in March to pay more than $7 million to settle violations of its air permit, including a $4.5 million civil penalty, the second largest in state history.
The company switched to a different solvent, a type of dichloroethylene called “trans-1,2 DCE,” but has had problems controlling pollution from that solvent as well. Its coating operations have been shut down for some time while it works on that and other problems, including vapors seeping back into the building from the floor beneath some of its coating equipment.
Meanwhile, the company has been working to develop a proprietary coating for its lead terminals.
Monday’s action covers Water Gremlin’s production workers; the administrative part of the business was not ordered to close.
Sheri Smith, a White Bear Lake resident who can see Water Gremlin from her house, said the action should have come sooner. The neighbors have organized to raise awareness about the pollution, including evidence that children were being sickened by “take-home lead.”
“It’s disappointing for me that it took this long for any action to get underway,” Smith said. “I don’t know if this just got lost among the other noise about Water Gremlin. I’m glad that someone has taken a really good look.”
Staff writer Greg Stanley contributed to this report.