November 7, 2019: Water Gremlin, the lead battery terminal manufacturer, told Batteries International on November 7 its terminal casting operations are now back in full production after the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry issued a 72-hour shut down on October 28.
In August, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) ordered it to suspend its solvent-based coating operations due to concerns about solvent vapors detected below the building. They also cited concerns that those vapors may migrate to neighboring homes. The company pushed back on those claims and it was already making improvements to at minimize further vapors from penetrating the floor.
The installation of a vapor mitigation system, designed to draw any vapors out from under the slab, was well underway and just days from completion, said the company.
The troubles for Water Gremlin began in January.
The MPCA announced that it had shutdown coating operations and notified local residents that the company had been emitting the industrial solvent trichloroethylene into the air above their permitted levels. That resulted in chemical exposure to the nearby area residents above the current health-based value of 2 micrograms per cubic metre of air.
This had occurred for more than 15 years. The agency would not allow the company to restart coating operations, using a new and far less toxic solvent, until it agreed to pay a $4.5 million civil penalty, participate in two supplemental environment projects totaling $1.5 million, and agree to ongoing monitoring at an estimated cost of $1 million.
Kurt Gifford, vice president of sales at Water Gremlin, said the company has been quite frustrated with the actions taken against them. “The large number of factors that were intentionally withheld from the public makes it very difficult to defend yourself.”
Despite the fact that the company had found the issue on its own and self-reported it to the MPCA in July 2018, the agency claimed it discovered the problem in January 2019.
Another critical fact that was not disclosed at the time was that the health-based value of 2 micrograms per cubic metre had been at 2,000 up until less than nine months before the company self-reported.
Gifford said, “It dropped from 2,000 to six. Six! That’s a 99.7% reduction without any public comment or notification.
“After the company reported its issue, it was dropped down to two.”
The MPCA also excluded information regarding how one would be at risk. Department of Health subsequently provided that guidance in their Health Assessment Series on Water Gremlin, published on April 26, 2019, when it explained that, “HBVs incorporate multiple safety factors intended to protect against human health effects. The HBVs are based on the assumption that one is breathing the air 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for up to a lifetime.
“Actual exposures are most likely less due to the movement of people in and out of areas and changes in weather/wind direction,” he said. The assessment goes on to note that area cancer and birth defect rates are similar or slightly lower than expected levels for the area.
“It is certainly interesting that the agency is being sued by local residents for knowingly failing to provide all documents related to Water Gremlin,” Gifford said.
The recent closing of the entire plant was based on 12 elevated blood lead levels in children of Water Gremlin employees over the past two years. All details of the employees and lead level exposures are protected by privacy laws regarding health records. This makes it impossible for the company to do root-cause analysis. “They won’t show us the numbers,” he said.
“It’s been very interesting how it’s all evolved. It’s come down to a judge saying there’s no factual data for many of these claims — relating to environmental issues, labour issues, lead issues — everything.”
“We are complying with everything the MPCA is telling us to do, even though much of it’s not necessary because we are not a lead smelter and we do not deal with lead oxide, which is where the problems with lead are. We take hard lead and produce parts from hard lead, not oxides.”
On November 6, it issued a new order requiring Water Gremlin to make changes to its hazardous waste management system and claimed it had found TCE and lead-containing waste on the floor and walls of the facility.
More than 20 specific requirements were laid out for Water Gremlin to enact. Gifford says the company has completed many of these items, but is also challenging several.