Fires, Strange Smells & Abnormal Activity: Why does this matter to the community?

It boils down to broken trust.

In December and January there were several incidents at Water Gremlin that would typically be considered minor for most industrial companies. However, over the past 11 months, information about the way Water Gremlin operates their business (and the resulting impacts) continues to surface. This information has made the community second guess everything that’s out of the ordinary. Read on for a high-level overview of incidents from this past year, including a summary on the December and January fires and smells.

Over the past year, the White Bear area community has learned about excessive TCE, tDCE, lead and other pollution from Water Gremlin.
TCE: In 2018 alone there were 120 tons of TCE emitted by Water Gremlin. They had a permit for 10 tons.  This excessive pollution had been going on for almost 17 years. (See page 9) The air we breath has been tainted with a very toxic chemical for a very long time. TCE is a dangerous chemical, a known carcinogen and it can impact the immune system and the neurological system and can cause birth defects.  Chronic, low-dose exposure to TCE is one of the least studied types of exposure and the health impacts are difficult to track because of how the chemical breaks down.
tDCE: Pollution happened in a matter of weeks after Water Gremlin restarted operations with the new chemical, tDCE. However, it took months for it to be reported that the retro-fitted pollution control equipment was not working. Additionally, while Water Gremlin marketed tDCE to the community as “safe”, tDCE is not a well-studied chemical and, has recently been named  by the EPA as a high-priority substance for risk evaluation
Lead pollution has been reported on extensively at the end of 2019 and is impacting some workers and their families. The fact that lead dust escaped the production areas and made it into the rest of the facility, worker’s cars and even worker’s homes illustrates a culture of  lax safety procedures.

Harmful, toxic chemicals are in the ground vapor, ground water and surface water. The environmental study required by the 3/1/19 Stipulation Agreement detailed TCE, tDCE, and lead in the ground water, surface water and under the building.  TCE and tDCE residues and/or spills were also found within the building.  Because of the first study results, a second study was initiated. Based on preliminary results of study 2, a third study will now be required. The full impact to our environment is not known. While there is good news in the preliminary results from study 2, there is also concerning news. Newly-found carcinogens are possibly making it into the ground water and moving off-site. (Round 2 environmental remediation report with more detail on this newly found chemical will be coming out in mid-February.)

Water Gremlin leadership and supervisors have not accepted meaningful accountability for their actions and more often than not, seem to deny any wrong-doing, suggesting everything is over-blown.  There has been no change to leadership or supervisors, that we can tell.

Finally, the community sees Water Gremlin fighting regulatory agencies with just about every mandated change. We’ll use the lead issue as one example.

We understand it is expensive to clean up lead, especially lead that has collected for years, across entire facility, surrounding grounds, worker’s cars and worker’s homes.

  • Water Gremlin has argued against improved safety and remediation.  
  • They resisted cleaning the entire facility.
  • They argued against providing personal protective equipment (PPE) to contract workers.*
  • They resisted cleaning cars.
  • They are appealing the requirement to clean homes.
    Of note, the Water Gremlin attorney stated that there were 920 contract employees over a 24 month period. While the judge has ordered PPE be provided to contract employees, so far, the discussion regarding cleaning of homes, and seemingly cleaning of cars, is only for full time employees.
    * Sources:  November and December 2019 court hearings.

So, in late December/early January, when a series of fires, smells and out-of-place vapors happened, neighbors adjacent to Water Gremlin became very anxious.

“What are they doing now?”  “Are they doing something that shouldn’t be done?” “When are they going to start caring about us?”  These are all questions rooted in fact-based fear.

Here’s a summary of known late December and January activities that caused the community concern.

It all started with a fire on June 28, 2019. It was reported. And then…

December 20:  Community members observed a fire on site and reported it to regulatory agencies and local government. The community learned that it was a small fire and was contained quickly, according to Water Gremlin protocols. No emergency services were called.

December 27: Two small fires were reported to the NCCG board. These fires were not called in to the responding fire dept – White Bear Lake. The first fire was in the morning and was put out by staff, however it lasted long enough for at least residual effects to be documented by a Minneapolis based WCCO camera crew. Later in the afternoon, an ember ignited dust/pollen build up in the ventilation. This fire was also handled solely by Water Gremlin. As a result of this fire, Water Gremlin did clean the pollen, dust and lead build up that was in the ventilation systems.

January 6: A very strong and unpleasant odor was reported coming from Water Gremlin by several neighborhood residents.  This was reported on one of our social channels, verified by several NCCG board members and involved citizens and then reported to involved elected officials and regulatory agencies.  It was apparently lacquer that was being smelled, late at night and it was said to be a one-time event.

January 14:  The odor that was present on January 6 was also present on January 14 in the evening. (A community member bikes in the winter evenings and reported it both times.)

January 24: We received reports of an explosion and possible fire. Information was vague and coming from multiple sources, but it was clear to those driving by or looking outside that there was something visibly different at the Water Gremlin site. After asking local government and regulatory agencies about it, they found out that it was not a problematic instance. A contractor was removing Nitrogen tanks and the tanks were depressurized prior to transporting them. This resulted in a large vapor cloud being emitted around the facility. This unusual activity was highly concerning to neighbors who know the  past history of Water Gremlin and no longer trust that they are operating according to industry standards. 

In summary, we understand that, for those unfamiliar with the depth of the Water Gremlin situation, calling out these types of issues could seem like an over-reaction from the community. Prior to the first notification by the MCPA of Water Gremlin violations, these incidents would likely not have been notable events.  However, considering the events during the past year, these incidents are another red flag that causes the community to fear Water Gremlin and that gives the community concern as to the ability of Water Gremlin to operate safely, even with extensive regulatory and county government oversight.