November 7, 2019: Water Gremlin, the lead battery terminal manufacturer, told BESB 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 ordered Water Gremlin to suspend its solvent-based coating operations due to concerns about solvent vapours detected below the building. Water Gremlin said it was already making improvements and installing a vapour mitigation system that was days from completion.
In January. The MPCA announced it had shut down coating operations and notified local residents that the company had been emitting the industrial solvent trichloroethylene into the air above permitted levels for more than 15 years.
The agency would not allow the company to restart coating operations, using a new, less toxic solvent, until it agreed to pay a penalty of $4.5 million, participate in two supplemental environment projects totalling $1.5 million, and agreed to ongoing monitoring at an estimated cost of $1 million.
Kurt Gifford, VP of sales at Water Gremlin, said the company is frustrated with the actions taken against them and lack of acknowledgement of the steps the company had taken to mitigate issues.
He said Water Gremlin had reported the emissions issue to the MPCA in July 2018, yet in January 2019 the agency claimed it had discovered the problem.
“Another critical fact that was not disclosed at the time was that the HBV of 2 micrograms per cubic metre had been at 2,000 until less than nine months before the company self-reported,” said Gifford. “It dropped from 2,000 to six, which is a 99.7% reduction without any public comment or notification.”
The MPCA also excluded information regarding risk. The Department of Health provided guidance in their Health Assessment Series on Water Gremlin, published on April 26, 2019, when it said: “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.” The assessment goes on to note that cancer and birth defect rates in the area are similar or slightly lower than expected 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, which 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. A meeting with the MCPA is set for the week of November 11th to discuss.
“Our customers call us daily, because although they’ve had to resort to contingency plans, but these are not working — the battery manufacturers want us back,” he said.
“We will work though this, we will be back,” he said.