Judge keeps Water Gremlin closed as company responds to lead threat

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, Oct. 28, 2019. 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: 11:24 a.m.

A Ramsey County judge has agreed to keep a White Bear Township fishing tackle and battery component maker shuttered for another day as executives try to work out a plan with the state to address lead poisoning.

Judge Leonardo Castro on Thursday said he’ll issue a temporary injunction keeping lead products maker Water Gremlin shut as he called for an immediate lead remediation plan. The judge said he’d like to see Water Gremlin reopen this weekend, even if at limited capacity.

“There are 320 employees that aren’t getting paid,” Castro told attorneys for the two sides during an hourlong hearing in St. Paul.

He noted the health concerns over dangerous lead levels found in the children of some workers, but added that he needed to balance those concerns with the needs of workers. “They won’t have a home to go to or a car to get into if they’re not getting paid,” he said.

Another hearing is expected for Friday morning.

The decision comes after two agencies this week ordered the immediate shutdown of Water Gremlin’s factory after 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.

The attorney for Water Gremlin, Thaddeus Lightfoot told the judge that the company had developed and submitted an “enhanced action plan,” at their factory. “We can start this afternoon,” he told Castro.

The plan includes sticky mats to keep workers shoes from tracking lead out of the facilities, HEPA vacuums to clean up lead dust and other steps.

“We do not need to start from scratch,” Lightfoot told the judge.

But Peter Surdo, the attorney for the state’s Department of Labor and Industry, said regulators remained skeptical and that county health officials had been trying to get Water Gremlin to deal with lead issues for more than a year.

“This clean exit plan is great,” Surdo told the judge. “What we want is an injunction to make sure it is followed.” He asked for the judge to extend the shutdown for a week, but Castro didn’t agree to that.

The two sides are scheduled for a third hearing Nov. 6.

Some Water Gremlin workers were happy to hear that the judge was considering reopening the operation as soon as this weekend.

“Twenty four hours is definitely better than a long term shutdown. I mean, I would really like it for everybody to get back to work today,” said Cher Thao, who’s worked at Water Gremlin for more than a decade. “I’m worried about everybody’s livelihood.”

He said his family hadn’t suffered from the lead exposure found among some of his colleagues’ children. He said he wanted to get back to earning a living.

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