Report: MPCA faltered in oversight of Water Gremlin’s air emissions

Sarah Kilgriff, an enforcement manager at the MPCA
Sarah Kilgriff, an enforcement manager at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, discusses the settlement with Water Gremlin at a news conference in St. Paul in March 2019. The Office of the Legislative Auditor says the MPCA should have done more to regulate the White Bear Township manufacturer with a history of air pollution problems.
Matt Sepic | MPR News 2019

A new report from a state watchdog office says the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency should have done more to regulate a White Bear Township, Minn., manufacturer with a history of air pollution problems.

In a special review released on Thursday, the Office of the Legislative Auditor said the MPCA “missed opportunities” to identify problems at Water Gremlin and intervene sooner.

Water Gremlin manufactures fishing sinkers and lead battery components. In 2019, the company agreed to pay $7 million in a legal settlement with the MPCA for violating its air quality permit.

Of particular concern was its release of a hazardous pollutant called trichloroethylene or TCE, a carcinogenic chemical linked to health problems including cancer. Last year, Minnesota became the first state to prohibit the use of TCE, beginning in June 2022.

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A sign for Water Gremlin is seen.
Water Gremlin is a fishing tackle and battery component maker in White Bear Township, Minn.
Matt Sepic | MPR News 2019

The review cited several instances when the MPCA failed to properly ensure that Water Gremlin had a timely permit that effectively regulated its air emissions.

When the company first applied for a permit in 1995, the MPCA didn't respond, so Water Gremlin's hazardous emissions went unregulated for several years, the review states.

The company reapplied four years later and the MPCA issued a permit in 2000, which was amended two years later. But the review said the amended permit didn't effectively limit Water Gremlin’s use of TCE.

The company had installed new equipment to recapture and reuse the chemical, but the permit only placed limits on the amount of TCE it was purchasing, not its overall use, the review said. After an initial test, MPCA staff did not require subsequent testing of Water Gremlin's air pollution equipment after 2002.

The review also said the MPCA did not inspect Water Gremlin as frequently as it should have, and did not regularly review the company's state and federal air emissions reports.

Some of those reports indicated that the company was reusing TCE and could have alerted regulators that Water Gremlin was failing to report all of its emissions, the review said.

The review also suggests that other internal problems at MPCA may have contributed to the faulty oversight, such as a backlog of air quality permit applications and a lack of state rules governing hazardous air pollutants.

There’s “no guarantee” that one or two more inspections would have identified the pollution problems, Joel Alter, director of special reviews for the Office of the Legislative Auditor, told state lawmakers on the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy Committee Thursday.

“But I think that certainly would have provided yet another opportunity for the eyes at MPCA to perhaps see something that might have triggered questions, raised a red flag,” Alter said.

Laura Bishop, Pollution Control Agency
Laura Bishop, Pollution Control Agency
Courtesy Minnesota Department of Administration

Laura Bishop, who took over as MPCA commissioner in 2019, told state lawmakers that her agency has made improvements in its permitting and review process that likely would have caught the discrepancies.

She said while the MPCA has added staff over the past two decades, it’s not been adequate to address the backlog of permits. The agency is requesting funding from the Legislature for additional staff and air monitoring equipment.