Idled Water Gremlin workers push to reopen plant

State Department of Labor and Industry Commissioner Nancy Leppink
State Department of Labor and Industry Commissioner Nancy Leppink addressed workers from Water Gremlin who came to the office of Gov. Tim Walz on Tuesday to call for officials to lift a company shutdown.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

Dozens of workers at a shuttered fishing tackle and battery component plant rallied at the Capitol Tuesday, calling for the state to get them back on the job despite warnings about lead hazards at the company.

“If it’s closed, where am I going to go, what am I going to do?” said Joey Her, who has worked at Water Gremlin in White Bear Township, Minn., for more than 20 years.

Her has no illusions about the nature of the job at the plant.

“You know you're working with acidic lead,” he said.

The plant makes fishing sinkers and tackle, and the fittings that go on batteries for cars, trucks and other heavy duty applications.

Her said it’s clear that workers have to be careful when they leave at the end of a shift.

“The shoes that you use it for work, leave at work. Or leave it somewhere where your family's not going to get to it. Keep it separate. It's a simple task,” he said.

Her and dozens of colleagues made their way to the Gov. Tim Walz's office to give state officials a message: The jobs at Water Gremlin are good, and hundreds of families depend on them.

Her said he came to the U.S. from Thailand as refugee decades ago, when he was 4. He doesn't have a high school diploma, he's got two kids and his wife had to leave her job to care for her mother and her sister, both disabled. He said he's raised two healthy kids on a Water Gremlin paycheck.

“I'm trying my best to keep my family with medical coverage, and benefits and stuff like that,” he said.

It was a common theme, as workers met with Labor Commissioner Nancy Leppink, who ordered the shutdown Monday after blood tests showed dangerously high lead levels in at least two children of plant workers, thought to have come from lead inadvertently brought home from work.

Workers suggested that state and county health officials still need to consider the possibility that the lead came from somewhere else — like from paint on aging homes. And some alleged their coworkers themselves bore some blame for lapses in hand-washing and avoiding contamination.

But Leppink told them it wasn't that easy, citing among other things the challenge of a work force with a high number of nonnative English speakers.

“So, there is a language barrier here, there is a cultural barrier here,” she said. “They are employing large numbers of temporary employees who circulate into their workplace.

“So, then you also have to supervise. You have to reinforce and you have to take action if employees don't comply with the rules,” she said.

Leppink told workers the state ultimately felt it had to step in to protect families — including those who hadn't been tested and may not even know they've been exposed to dangerous levels of lead.

Leppink also told them her agency and the Department of Health weren't trying to put Water Gremlin out of business and want to find a way to get people back to work there. But she didn't say under what conditions the state would support re-opening of the plant.

Water Gremlin workers gathered in the reception room in Walz's office.
Dozens of workers gathered in the reception room in Gov. Tim Walz's office on Tuesday to call for state officials to reopen the lead products plant where they worked near White Bear Lake.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

But some workers said the state over-reacted.

Leng Vue brought his sleeping 2-year-old son to the demonstration. He said he and his colleagues were careful with their kids, got their blood tested and supported Water Gremlin.

“Definitely. I wouldn't work there if I didn't feel safe,” he said.

Randy Kieger, who has worked at Water Gremlin for 22 years, said he hopes that the state and the company can come up with a compromise soon and get people back to work.

“There's got to be a way to clean it up. And we've got to find that way,” he said. “I think we're missing something. But I don't think we're miles apart.”

The state Labor Department's shutdown order runs through Thursday afternoon. A hearing a proposed injunction to keep the plant closed is set for a hearing before a judge in St. Paul on Thursday morning.