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Minnesota agency asks Water Gremlin to halt some work after new contamination discovered

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Sarah Kilgriff, an enforcement manager at the MPCA
Sarah Kilgriff, of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, discusses the settlement with Water Gremlin at a news conference in St. Paul on March 1, 2019.
Matt Sepic | MPR News file

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency on Thursday asked a manufacturer in White Bear Township, Minn., to shut down part of its operations because of newly discovered contamination.

Water Gremlin, which makes fishing sinkers and battery terminals, violated its air permit for 17 years and paid $7 million in March over the trichloroethylene — or TCE — releases. TCE has also contaminated soil and nearby groundwater, according to the MPCA, though drinking water wells tested earlier this year showed no signs of contamination.

The company switched to a different solvent, dichloroethene — or DCE — as part of an agreement with the MPCA, but state officials said a pollution assessment has revealed new DCE contamination on site.

“We have significant concerns about the ongoing release of DCE into the soil underneath the building,” said Craig McDonnell, the MPCA's assistant commissioner of air and climate policy. “We want to determine the extent and magnitude of those contaminations and how to move forward."

Water Gremlin on Thursday said it disputes the MPCA’s conclusions about DCE contamination and has requested a meeting with state officials.

“While we take these issues very seriously, no information suggests that the sub-slab DCE vapors present any threat to the people working in the building, our neighbors or our environment,” Water Gremlin president Junya Inoue wrote in a letter to MPCA Commissioner Laura Bishop. Inoue added that the company was “shocked” by the agency’s most recent communication.

Water Gremlin also told the MPCA it would have new vapor mitigation equipment installed as required by the end of the month.

The most recent pollution assessment happened as part of a stipulation agreement between the company and the MPCA.

Outside MPCA headquarters in St. Paul, one White Bear Township family protested and asked the MPCA to shut down the company immediately.

“[Water Gremlin officials have] obviously shown they have no qualms with doing the wrong thing all the time until we are all harmed here,” said Samantha Fehrman, who protested along with her children, her sister and her sister’s children.

Crowd outside building holding signs
A group of residents from White Bear Township protests outside the MPCA on Thursday in St. Paul, asking officials to shut down Water Gremlin.
Elizabeth Dunbar | MPR News

Three state lawmakers who represent the east metro area also weighed in on the situation, saying Water Gremlin should immediately shut down.

“Water Gremlin must be held accountable for continuing to release dangerous chemicals and betraying our communities’ trust,” DFL Reps. Peter Fischer, Jamie Becker-Finn and Ami Wazlawik said in a written statement.

McDonnell said more action against Water Gremlin could come, depending on how the company responds to the MPCA’s latest request.

Sarah Kilgriff, land and air compliance manager with the MPCA, said regulators must follow Minnesota law in taking action against a company.

“Anytime the MPCA takes action we want to make sure we have a solid case,” she said. “We also understand that because of our system of due process, there are options that the company has to appeal or ask a judge to review the MPCA’s decision.”