Frequently asked questions: Water Gremlin, Inc. emissions

TCE emissions

What is TCE and how did Water Gremlin use it?

Trichloroethylene (TCE) is a man-made chemical that can be a liquid or gas. It is mainly used as a solvent in manufacturing to degrease metal parts. It can also be used in the production of other industrial chemicals. A variety of home products may contain TCE, including wood finishes, glues and adhesives, paint or paint removers, spot cleaners, and metal cleaners.

Breathing TCE, especially at high levels or over long periods of time, can cause negative health effects. Water Gremlin has used TCE to clean and coat the battery terminal posts prior to battery assembly at other facilities.

Where is Water Gremlin located?

Water Gremlin makes fishing sinkers and battery terminals, and is located at 4400 Otter Lake Road in White Bear Township.

How were the Water Gremlin facility’s TCE emissions controlled?

The facility’s pollution control system for TCE used a carbon adsorber. Exhaust from the TCE process was vented through the adsorber, where the TCE was condensed out and collected for proper disposal.

Water Gremlin’s MPCA-issued air quality permit contains emission limits for TCE and specifies how the control equipment should be operated and what kinds of monitoring and reporting they are required to do.

How did TCE escape from the facility?

The carbon adsorber was not functioning properly. Carbon adsorption is commonly used to clean air emissions. The carbon becomes less efficient at capturing pollutants over time and must be replaced. In the case of Water Gremlin, it appears the carbon adsorber lost efficiency quicker than expected, to the point where it was functioning at various levels of control, including barely functioning. This allowed TCE to be vented from the building at levels that may have been much higher than allowed.

How long have these emissions been occurring?

On January 14, 2019, the MPCA requested Water Gremlin to voluntarily shut down the part of their process that emits TCE. They complied and are no longer emitting TCE. MPCA staff are working to understand how the TCE emissions occurred and at what magnitude.

How far did they travel?

MPCA staff have run computer models that suggest the area of concern for TCE emissions does not extend farther than 1 to 1.5 miles from the facility. This is a conservative estimate, meaning the reality could be less.

Why wasn’t this caught sooner?

The facility is required operate the adsorber any time they are coating with TCE, and to operate it in a way that maintains 95% control of TCE emissions. However we now know the adsorber was not achieving that level of control. The MPCA inspected the facility several times over the years while the equipment was operating, but the fact it wasn’t achieving the required control was not reported by the company nor apparent to the inspectors.

Why are they still operating if they did this?

The MPCA has authority to order a shutdown if public health may be endangered. We requested Water Gremlin to shut down the TCE line on January 14, 2019, and they did so the same day. Production resumed on March 1, 2019 using an alternative product called DCE.  No TCE is allowed to be used at the facility.  Operations are limited per the terms of the settlement agreement until new pollution control equipment is fully operational.

Are they going to be penalized?

The MPCA and Water Gremlin signed a settlement agreement on March 1, 2019. The settlement, valued at $7 million, includes a $4.5 million civil penalty, corrective actions, and two supplementary environmental projects. 

Health effects

With most environmental contaminants, the risk to a person is generally determined by the amount of exposure, duration of exposure, and the toxicity of the substance. Elevated levels of TCE exposure may increase the risk of certain types of cancers (kidney, possibly non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and liver) over a lifetime. Visit the Minnesota Department of Health's Water Gremlin webpage for more information. 

How can I find out more about this situation?

MDH and MPCA will post the latest information about this situation on their websites:

MPCA and MDH will offer periodic updates via email subscription. To subscribe, visit https://public.govdelivery.com/accounts/MNPCA/subscriber/new?topic_id=MNPCA_357.

You can also contact the MPCA or MDH at 651-201-4897 (leave a message for a call-back) or health.hazard@state.mn.us.