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Water Gremlin to pay $7 million settlement for air pollution

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Sarah Kilgriff, an enforcement manager at the MPCA
Sarah Kilgriff, an enforcement manager at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, discusses the settlement with Water Gremlin at a news conference in St. Paul on Friday.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

Updated: 4:55 p.m. | Posted: 12:21 p.m.

Air pollution violations will cost an east Twin Cities metro manufacturer $7 million, state regulators said Friday. 

Water Gremlin agreed Thursday to pay a $4.5 million civil penalty to the state for releasing too much trichloroethylene, or TCE. The solvent is used as a cleaner and degreaser in metal manufacturing.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency says the plant released an excess amount of the chemical into the air.

The settlement with the state agency also requires Water Gremlin to shell out another $1 million for air monitoring at its site and an additional $1.5 million for environmental projects, including planting 1,500 trees. 

Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Commissioner Laura Bishop called the agreement one of the largest in the state. 

"This penalty will provide a powerful deterrent to Water Gremlin and other permit holders that break Minnesota's environmental laws," Bishop said.

Bishop said Water Gremlin failed to tell the agency that its air pollution controls had malfunctioned. Regulators say enough of the solvent was released that people within a 1.5-mile radius could be at risk. 

Sarah Kilgriff, an enforcement manager at the state agency, said the company has been releasing excess TCE since 2002. 

"Part of the backbone of the Clean Air Act and most of our regulatory programs rely on some level of self-reporting. And unfortunately, the company failed. They didn't self-report the issues," Kilgriff said.

The agreement also requires Water Gremlin to stop using TCE. The company has told regulators it plans to switch to a different solvent for its metal coating operations. 

Jim Kelly with the Minnesota Department of Health said the chemical is a known carcinogen and may increase the risk of birth defects.

"What we're concerned about is that the community was exposed for this period of time. It could have increased their risk for some of these health outcomes that have been associated with TCE," Kelly said. "It doesn't mean that those impacts are going to happen. It means that they may bear an increased risk for some of those conditions over the course of their lives."

Kelly said TCE evaporates quickly and breaks down in sunlight, so water pollution is not a major concern. Nevertheless, he says the health department still plans to check the groundwater near the plant, and will be contacting well owners to collect samples. 

Jan Hubinger lives nearby and said the state Pollution Control Agency should have acted sooner, but that additional air monitoring required by the settlement will help protect residents.

"I had some concerns about the water, but they have been testing the water. They're going to test the individual homeowner wells, so I'm feeling OK," Hubinger said. 

State Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, said negotiating such a big settlement was a challenging task, and the Pollution Control Agency did a good job with it. But Chamberlain added he wants to know whether those who develop health problems, as a result, could be compensated as part of the agreement. 

"All my colleagues agree — if we were living next door to Water Gremlin, we'd have the same concerns. So we have to address those and make sure it's properly done," Chamberlain said.

Chamberlain also said elected officials from the area were left out of the settlement talks. 

Company officials did not return calls from MPR News for comment. But at a public meeting last week, they apologized for the problem and pledged to remain in full compliance with the Pollution Control Agency's requirements. 

Another public meeting is scheduled for March 7 at White Bear Area High School.