White Bear company to pay major penalty for release of hazardous air pollutant

Contact: Ralph Pribble, 651-757-2657

Water Gremlin, a manufacturer located in White Bear Township, has agreed to pay a major penalty for violations of its air quality permit.

The recently discovered violation found that the company released the chemical trichloroethylene (TCE) into the air above what was allowed in the permit, resulting in exposure within neighborhoods around the facility to TCE levels above health benchmarks set by the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH).

Combined, the total value of the settlement will be more than $7 million. The company will pay a civil penalty of $4.5 million, take corrective actions at their site, conduct air monitoring for several years valued at roughly $1 million, and conduct two supplemental environmental projects valued at least $1.5 million.

“The exposures to TCE that these communities suffered should never have happened,” said Minnesota Pollution Control  Agency (MPCA) Commissioner Laura Bishop. “We know this penalty will be small consolation to those who may face increased health risks because they lived near the facility. Still, it is one of the largest environmental penalties in the state’s history, and sends a strong signal of the agency’s expectations.”

TCE is an industrial solvent that is used in some industries and is found in some household products such as adhesives, paint and stain removers, and parts cleaners. Usually it’s in a liquid form, but it is highly volatile, meaning it easily becomes airborne. When it does, the emissions must be properly controlled or they can be harmful to breathe. Water Gremlin used TCE to coat metal parts. The facility’s air permit required pollution control equipment to keep emissions to allowable levels.

In January 2019 an ongoing MPCA investigation discovered the company had not reported that the pollution control equipment had not been operating at its required levels. As a result, TCE was emitted from the facility at levels that may pose a risk to human health over an area extending up to 1.5 miles from the facility. According to MDH, elevated TCE exposures may increase the risk of birth defects and certain types of cancers.

When the MPCA discovered the full extent of the violations in January, the agency demanded that Water Gremlin voluntarily shut down the TCE portion of their operation; the company complied. Bishop said the quick resolution of the investigation and large penalty show the seriousness of the violations.

“The great majority of Minnesota businesses live up to the terms of their emissions permits,” said Bishop. “The lapses in management and pollution control at Water Gremlin are the exception, not the rule in Minnesota.”

The penalty agreement allows Water Gremlin to restart the production line that was the source of the problem — but they must use an alternative, less toxic product than TCE. The company also agreed to place air monitors on all four sides of the property, at their expense, so the community and MPCA can be assured that all emissions are within health limits.

In addition, the company must investigate and report on any potential contamination in the soil and groundwater on its property. If contamination is found the company will be required to clean it up. The State of Minnesota will survey private drinking water wells in the area for TCE this spring.

The agreement includes a requirement for Water Gremlin to spend at least $1.5 million on two projects to benefit human health and the environment. In one project, Water Gremlin will coordinate an education and outreach project for other manufacturers that use TCE. Facilities will be encouraged to switch to alternative products and/or reduce or eliminate their use of TCE. For the other project, Water Gremlin will work to plant and maintain 1,500 trees in public areas in White Bear Lake, Gem Lake, and White Bear Township.

When calculating a penalty, the MPCA factors in the effect of the violation on human health and the environment, whether it was a first-time or repeat violation, economic benefit that may have been gained and how promptly it was reported.