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Legislative Auditor: MN Pollution Control Agency Did Not Inspect Water Gremlin As Often As It Should

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- Minnesota's governor says what happened at a Twin Cities manufacturing plant can never happen again. A legislative watchdog found that the state failed to stop air pollution at Water Gremlin for more than 15 years.

It's a problem WCCO's Jennifer Mayerle investigated. She explains how a community's concern could finally lead to change.

The revelation that Water Gremlin had emitted elevated levels of a cancer-causing chemical into the air for years rattled the White Bear Township community. Neighbors had questions about how the manufacturing plant could have polluted with TCE for so long. Legislators wanted answers from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency too.

"We looked at their regulation and oversight of Water Gremlin basically going back as far as records go," said Joel Alter, director of special reviews with the Office of the Legislative Auditor.

The legislative auditor's investigation began a year-and-a-half ago. It resulted in a 64-page report that details where MPCA fell down on the job.

MORE DETAILS: You can read the entire 64-page special review here.

"There were things both on the permitting side and on the enforcement side that MPCA could have done better to be aware of these problems sooner and potentially to intervene. When we see instances where things haven't gone as well as they should we're concerned, and legislators are concerned and the community is concerned," Alter said.

The inaction by MPCA resulted in the community being exposed to elevated and dangerous levels of the toxic chemical for more than 15 years. Several neighbors of the plant told WCCO they worry that chemical caused their cancer, like Page Stevens.

"I'm sadly disappointed in their lack of action," Page Stevens said.

"I believe in the bottom of my heart if something had been straightened out, my wife wouldn't have had to go through this," Denny Stevens said.

During a committee hearing on the report Thursday, legislators pushed for accountability with MPCA.

But there is hope the review is a step forward to protect neighborhoods across the state.

"That's what I see as positive change, somebody is looking at making some change here so this does not happen again," Sheri Smith said.

The MPCA told WCCO: "The Legislative Auditor's review highlights the agency's enhancements over nearly 25 years, as well as new opportunities to improve. The MPCA is committed to continuous improvement to ensure permitted facilities remain in compliance with laws and regulations, and Minnesota's environment is protected. The agency agrees with many of the review's findings and approaches to enhance compliance and enforcement, and permitting work.

"Water Gremlin broke the public's trust and put the neighboring community at risk. MPCA continues to hold the company accountable The Legislative Auditor's review brings new urgency to proposed policy changes that protect taxpayers and impacted communities when a facility violates its permit and the public's trust, and budget requests for additional inspectors and new air monitoring equipment. The MPCA needs the legislature to enact these commonsense and now validated measures this legislative session."

Gov. Tim Walz said: "What happened at Water Gremlin can never happen again. That's why my administration stepped in and stopped Water Gremlin's operations until they fixed the problem. I appreciate the Legislative Auditor's thorough review, covering a problem 25 years in the making. I am glad that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has already taken some of the suggested steps to ensure that polluters are stopped in their tracks going forward. My recent budget proposal includes funding for additional site inspectors and air monitoring equipment to help the agency keep Minnesotans safe and prevent a situation like this in the future."

And Water Gremlin responded to the report: "Water Gremlin has been working with state and county officials and made significant changes in facilities, staff, and processes to provide a safe and environmentally sustainable operation. This includes discontinuing use of trichloroethylene (TCE) and developing reduced and solvent-free manufacturing capabilities."

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