Water Gremlin Co. can restart production Tuesday at its White Bear Township factory after a Ramsey County judge approved a plan to retrain workers and clean up the lead they were tracking home at dangerous levels.
At a court hearing on Friday, Ramsey County District Judge Leonardo Castro considered short-term remediation plans submitted by the company and by state officials, approved a compromise, and said the plant can reopen at 6:30 a.m. Tuesday. State regulators had shuttered the plant Monday after documenting continued industrial hygiene problems, and Castro underscored the potential health threat.
“I will not hesitate to stop operations if I’m not satisfied that progress is being made,” Castro told the courtroom.
More than 50 Water Gremlin employees, some with children and most from the Hmong community, filled the courtroom in a show of support for the company.
“I don’t think the [regulators] realized they’re going against a community, not just a company,” said Leng Vue, a 31-year-old die cast operator at the plant.
The remediation plan approved Friday is the first of a three-part “clean exit plan” to protect Water Gremlin’s workers and their families from lead poisoning. It covers the next 30 days. The parties are due back in court on Wednesday to discuss a more comprehensive cleanup.
Company executive Carl Dubois said employees “are excited to get back to work.”
The Minnesota Department of Health, the Department of Labor and Industry and St. Paul-Ramsey County Public Health issued a joint statement calling the 30-day plan an important first step that “will need to be followed by more permanent solutions.”
‘Flimsy Band-Aid approach’
The state had pressed for the most aggressive control procedures, but Castro took a measured approach. At one point he admonished the workers in the courtroom about their own responsibility for following safety protocols. Castro also made several concessions to the manufacturer.
For example, the state asked for mobile shower trailers to clean workers as they enter and leave the facility; Castro allowed a temporary “clean bootie system” until something better is arranged. That involves workers wearing booties over their street shoes and switching to work footwear.
The state also wanted the entire facility cleaned of lead dust, shavings and filings. Instead, Water Gremlin will start with cleaning the cafeteria and locker rooms. Water Gremlin must clean employee vehicles with high-powered vacuums and lead cleaning wipes by Nov. 22.
In one heated exchange, the state’s lawyer, Special Assistant Attorney General Peter Surdo, exclaimed that the cleanup plan was becoming “a sort of really flimsy Band-Aid approach.”
That comment was “irresponsible,” Water Gremlin’s attorney Thaddeus Lightfoot shot back.
Standing outside the courthouse, Water Gremlin employees said they were pleased with the hearing. “We’re happy that our voice got to be heard,” said Kevin Kasal, a 35-year-old shipping clerk.
Vue, the die cast operator, said restarting Tuesday “is definitely better than what the Department of Labor and Industry was proposing.” He didn’t take issue with Castro’s reminder about personal responsibility for safety.
“We’re going to have to police ourselves,” Vue said. “There’s always room for improvement.”
Water Gremlin has been closed since Monday, when the state Department of Labor and Industry, which oversees occupational safety, ordered an emergency 72-hour shutdown. The order followed a weekend inspection that showed continued violations of standards for protecting employees from lead exposure.
Water Gremlin has a history of pollution problems. It employs 313 people at its White Bear Township plant, using lead to make fishing gear and lead terminals for vehicle batteries. It is a subsidiary of Okabe Co. Ltd. in Tokyo and is a major supplier of battery terminals to the North and South American markets.
Lead is an extremely dangerous metal that can cause brain damage and neurological problems in children and miscarriages in pregnant women.
The failed inspection was apparently the final straw for state regulators. Officials at the Department of Labor and Industry and the state Department of Health already knew that 12 children of employees had elevated lead levels in their blood. Two of the children had very high levels, exceeding 15 micrograms per deciliter. The second child was reported to officials on Oct. 14, shortly before the emergency shutdown.
A team from St. Paul-Ramsey County Public Health had been investigating the matter since late 2017. After eliminating other sources for the lead, they determined it was being tracked home by Water Gremlin employees. They began working with families, court documents show.
According to a declaration by James Yannarelly, a supervisor with Ramsey County Environmental Health, a public health nurse working on the matter notified the Minnesota Department of Health “about each case after it was determined that the source of the lead exposures was from take-home lead.”
The team tried to escalate efforts to address the problem but said coordinating a response was challenging because the project involved different regulatory agencies with various safety standards. Yannarelly said the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which regulates workplace safety, “has an (outdated) standard for lead particles present in the ambient air that can be inhaled; it does not have any applicable regulation for lead dust deposits that can be transferred to clothing” or footwear.
The county team began working with Water Gremlin in fall 2018 to make improvements and identified the die-casting area of the plant as a major source for the lead dust being tracked to homes. The team accelerated their efforts in January, when they learned of a second child with a spiked blood lead level of 16.6 micrograms per deciliter.