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Minnesota shuts Water Gremlin over lead poisoning threat

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A sign for Water Gremlin is seen.
A sign for Water Gremlin, a White Bear Township, Minn., fishing tackle and battery component maker, is seen on Monday. The company has been the focus of state enforcement action for months, most recently for tests that found a solvent was leaking out of the factory and into soil.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

Updated: Oct. 29, 10 a.m. 

Two state agencies have ordered the shutdown of a White Bear Township fishing tackle and battery component maker after the children of employees were found to have dangerous levels of lead in their blood.

Water Gremlin has been the focus of state enforcement action for months, most recently for tests that found a solvent was leaking out of the factory and into soil.

But following an inspection by state regulators over the weekend, health officials found that suspected lead dust had made its way into the homes of company employees, and into the bloodstreams of their families.

Department of Labor and Industry Commissioner Nancy Leppink said that she issued a temporary order shutting down production at Water Gremlin, but that her order can only extend for 72 hours. She said the health and labor agencies are asking a judge for an injunction to extend the shutdown of industrial production of lead products. 

In a court filing, Ramsey County health official Jim Yannarelly revealed that reports of elevated blood lead levels first surfaced 2017 in children of Water Gremlin employees. Those didn’t rise to the level where state law required an investigation and regulator response. 

Yannarelly, the program supervisor for the county’s lead and healthy homes division, said officials worked with Water Gremlin and some employees to determine a cause and minimize exposure.

By 2018, however, Yannarelly said county health teams had grown alarmed that lead levels were not falling. They found through site visits that employees in work clothes took smoke breaks in their cars, ate lunch in clothes with visible lead dust on them and wore items home that had been exposed to lead.

Discovery of a child with an especially dangerous lead level in January 2019 prompted a mandatory investigation and requirements on the company. That child was found to have a level of more than 16 micrograms per deciliter. Red flags go up at 5 micrograms, although pediatricians are quick to point out that the only safe level of lead is zero.

On Oct. 14, a new report involving the child of a plant worker escalated the case and caused a referral to the Minnesota Department of Health.

“Confirmation of a second case of childhood lead poisoning made it clear that practices at the plant were not sufficient to reduce the risk,” state health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said in a statement

Health officials said the lead levels were sufficiently high that they would expect that the two children could suffer from intelligence impairment and long-lasting developmental impacts.

In a legal brief supporting the move to shutter Water Gremlin, Peter Surdo, a special assistant to Attorney General Keith Ellison, wrote that the lead poisoning risks could spread beyond Water Gremlin families when they sell their houses and cars.

“This is, by its very nature, a threat to public health,” Surdo wrote. “It is shocking that Water Gremlin has been aware that lead is present at elevated levels of its employees’ children, and has not successfully prevented their exposure.”

In a statement, Water Gremlin said it was “saddened to learn” that its work with the county “did not result in positive changes for some of our employees’ families.” 

The company noted that no workers have shown blood lead levels above Occupational Safety and Health Administration thresholds and suggested a lapse in “employee industrial hygiene” was to  blame for the lead exposure at the workers’ homes, adding, “If necessary, the company will utilize disciplinary action for employees who do not follow those policies. 

Ramsey County officials also said they were working to establish unemployment benefits for the workers at Water Gremlin, with the expectation that workers there would be out of work and not being paid for some time. 

Two people sit at a table with information.
Sarkapru Htoo, left, and Saysay Eh, Karen language interpreters with the Ramsey County Department of Public Health, await clients at the Vadnais Sports Center on Monday. Officials also have books and toys for children ready to distribute.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

They set up a temporary assistance center at the Vadnais Sports Center in Vadnais Heights to provide employment assistance and answer worker health questions as Water Gremlin was shutting down late Monday morning.

In March, Water Gremlin agreed to pay $7 million in fines for emitting excessive amounts of the cancer-causing substance TCE. The MPCA has also sought to shut down some of its operations because of contamination of soil beneath the plant. Water Gremlin has disputed the agency’s findings of additional pollutants.

Gov. Tim Walz on Monday called it “heartbreaking” and “unacceptable” that “unsafe conditions at Water Gremlin’s facility resulted in workers unknowingly bringing home lead dust, causing lead poisoning in their children.”

State Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, whose district includes Water Gremlin, agreed that stopping the manufacturer’s operations “at least for the time being, is a necessary step. If companies misbehave, there must be consequences and accountability.”

MPR News reporter Matt Sepic contributed to this report.