By Jennifer Mayerle

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – Two years after the state slapped a manufacturing plant with one of the largest pollution fines in Minnesota history, neighbors still wait for answers.

Water Gremlin released unsafe levels of a toxic chemical in White Bear Township for more than 15 years. The company paid $7 million in fines and fixes. A stipulation agreement with the state allowed the plant to reopen.

Since learning Water Gremlin had polluted White Bear Township, releasing a toxic chemical in the air for years, the community took a stand, and hasn’t backed down.

“When you saw the stipulation agreement two years ago, you said ‘this is wrong, something is really wrong here, and something needs to change’,’” said Kelly Tapkan, who lives near Water Gremlin, and is part of the Neighborhood Concerned Citizens Group.

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They showed up at meetings to learn more about TCE, which is known to cause cancer and birth defects. They protested outside the manufacturing plant, and formed their own neighborhood group.

“No more same old, same old here. What’s happened here says you can’t have same old, same old,” said Sheri Smith, who also lives near Water Gremlin, and is part of the Neighborhood Concerned Citizens Group.

For two years they demanded answers, and better for their families.

“The whole message from the get-go is hold the company, hold the MPCA, and other regulatory agencies, accountable for what’s happened here,” Smith said.

Strides have been made. The state required Water Gremlin to stop using TCE. Agencies realized the need for better cross communication. After WCCO discovered workers unknowingly took home lead, poisoning some of their kids, the state stepped in and temporarily shut the company down in late 2019. It reopened with more oversight. Last May, Minnesota became the first state in the country to ban TCE.

And a recent independent legislative report found what WCCO has reported for two years: that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency fell down on the job when it came to enforcing Water Gremlin’s permit.

“There were things that really went wrong, and we saw that, where the agency needs to be accountable, and the regulated party,” MPCA Commissioner Laura Bishop said.

The regulatory agency’s commissioner says the Water Gremlin crisis forced improvements, including more consistency in checks, permitting, and training.

“And then we have cross collaboration with our compliance and enforcement team. The permit engineer and inspector both are looking at a permit before it would be issued,” Bishop said.

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The agency is asking for more resources: for air monitoring equipment and additional inspectors. It also seeks the authority to suspend or revoke a facility’s permit “in cases of deliberate, chronic or substantial violations.”

“State agencies need to be able to have the tools to protect Minnesotans, and I think that’s what came out of this. We’re grateful for it, and now the legislature needs to enact the things that they’re asking for,” Governor Tim Walz said.

But there are still outstanding issues with the company: including a yet-to-be-imposed fine for how the plant handled hazardous waste.

And the community continues to wait for the new major permit for Water Gremlin. Originally told it would happen in 2019, then 2020. MPCA says they’re waiting on the plant to provide more information.

“Should we have all the information? Are we waiting on a company that’s already been a bad actor?” WCCO’s Jennifer Mayerle asked Bishop.

“They have definitely been a bad actor. The errors were egregious and we need to have something that is enforceable and clear, and that’s what we’re working on,” Bishop replied.

“While we respect that the MPCA wants to do this right, we also feel that there need to be defined guidelines for Water Gremlin in how they’re operating so that they can be held accountable. And it’s time, two years,” Tapkan said.

The community gave the MPCA until May to get the permit ready for public comment, and the agency thinks it can meet that deadline.

In a statement, Water Gremlin said:

Water Gremlin continues to work with state and county officials to achieve our mutual goals of proving a safe and environmentally sustainable operations. In 2019 and 2020, we made significant investments to drive improvements within our facilities and operating procedures.

In August 2020, the company applied for approval from MPCA to immediately convert a significant portion of our coating operations to our new environmentally friendly UV coating process. The MPCA approved that conversion by issuing the permit modification earlier this week. This will help us to continue on the path of our goal of reducing, and eventually eliminating, solvents from our coating operations.

We are also providing MPCA with all information needed to issue the major permit amendment, which was first applied for in February 2019. Given the importance of the substantial changes and the desire to ensure public confidence, we are dedicated to getting this done, and doing it correctly.

Jennifer Mayerle