Judge OKs Water Gremlin reopening amid deal over lead cleanup

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: 5:35 p.m.

A Ramsey County judge says a White Bear Township fishing tackle and battery component maker can reopen on Tuesday after executives and state regulators worked out a plan to address lead poisoning traceable to the plant.

The ruling by Judge Leonardo Castro offers a way forward for Water Gremlin after two state agencies had ordered the immediate shutdown of its 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 a recent inspection by state regulators, health officials found that suspected lead dust had made its way into the homes of company employees, and into the bloodstreams of their families.

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On Thursday, the company told the court it had developed an “enhanced action plan” at the factory, including the use of sticky mats to keep workers shoes from tracking lead out of the facilities, and HEPA vacuums to clean up lead dust. Employees are banned from entering lunchrooms with dirty work clothes on. Inspectors said that was a big problem that they noticed recently.

"Since this order was issued on Monday, Water Gremlin has moved heaven and earth to get you and get the state a plan that's agreeable for a restart," Water Gremlin attorney Thaddeus Lightfoot said in court.

In a statement Friday, the state health and labor and industry departments said that Water Gremlin’s first steps are important — but not sufficient — and need to be followed by more permanent solutions.

Regulators also want the company to have at least one supervisor per shift to ensure compliance with the rules. And a third party monitor will do regular white glove tests to make sure the housekeeping is effective.

Within three months, Water Gremlin is supposed to identify all the homes and vehicles used by employees within the last two years and test those and clean them if necessary. And next year, the state wants the company to redesign its plant so employees enter and exit directly into changing facilities.

Castro told state and company officials Thursday that a balance needed to be struck between the health concerns highlighted by the lead poisoning found in some workers’ children and the economic needs of the more than 300 Water Gremlin employees.

Dozens protested the closure this week at the State Capitol, and about 50 packed into the courtroom. Cindy Majeske, who has worked at the plant for nearly 30 years, said the uncertainty has been hard.

"You had no idea what was going to come from it. Now we get to go back to work, and we'll continue to follow the rules and do things right. It'll be good," she said.