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MPCA Admits It Failed A Metro Community

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- State pollution officials admit they failed a metro community and they are pledging to do better. That community is White Bear Township, home to a group of neighbors we first introduced you to in May.

Most are sick with cancer or have lost a loved one to the disease. While there's no official link to the cancer and Water Gremlin, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency acknowledges a pollution failure in their backyard.

RELATED: A Community Shares Concerns Over Cancer Cases

Jennifer Mayerle has an update on a story she's been following since March.

"It really is a situation where everything kind of failed, and we need to do better about fixing that going forward," Jeff Smith, MPCA's director of the Industrial Division said.

These are strong words from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency about Water Gremlin. The White Bear Township company makes fishing sinkers and battery terminal posts and released elevated levels of a toxic chemical called TCE into the air for at least 17 years.

"It kind of highlights this could happen anywhere in Minnesota. I think that's very concerning to people," Mayerle said.

"It's concerning to us. Certainly Water Gremlin is not the kind of project we want to see happen. It's not the relationship we've had with the company," Smith said.

Here's how it did happen: the MPCA said Water Gremlin submitted an audit last summer. Smith said his department had no idea how far out of compliance the company was. It wasn't until January that they figured out the problem. He admits it took too long and said the company was not forthcoming.

"Do you feel Water Gremlin was hiding something?" Mayerle asked.

"I wouldn't speculate on their motives but we certainly did not get the information we needed to do our job," Smith said.

RELATED: Water Gremlin To Pay Out $7 Million Over Leaked Carcinogen In White Bear Township

In Minnesota, the state expects companies to self-report. In this case, Water Gremlin was allowed to emit safe levels of TCE. MPCA inspectors did on-site checks every few years. Beyond that, the state relied on the honor system-- in this case, trusting Water Gremlin's own self-reporting.

"It is almost impossible for an inspector to go into a different company and look at their pollution control equipment and figure out that that is or is not working. We are experts in knowing how to write permits, we are experts on doing file reviews, we are experts on asking questions about how a facility is operating but the Clean Water Act and state laws that apply really are grounded and require that companies self-report," Smith said.

He said 98 percent of companies in Minnesota are compliant.

"How do we know that other companies are compliant?" Mayerle asked.

"Just because we do our own audits and inspections and we have a lot of training…" Smith said.

Mayerle responded, "...But you said inspectors can't catch these things. They didn't catch Water Gremlin. How can we trust that these companies are self-reporting accurately?" Mayerle said.

"Well, I think it's a reflection of how important environmental protection is to companies in Minnesota. I think no company wants to be in a situation like Water Gremlin," Smith said.

Smith said the MPCA relied on accurate reports, which they didn't get-- and is firm in saying the company should've known right away.

"Their obligation is to know. At all levels of the organization,  from the CEO down to the operational person," Smith said.

RELATED: State Health Leaders Address Pollution Investigation In White Bear Township

When asked to respond to this story, Water Gremlin provided WCCO with a statement it submitted to a newspaper opinion page on March 6:

'Thank you to everyone who has reached out with questions, attended a community meeting, or shared concerns as we work with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and the Minnesota Department of Health to better understand the potential impact of our operations. This community has been Water Gremlin's home for more than 60 years, and we are deeply sorry for putting you through this situation.

After we discovered internally that our TCE emissions were potentially not in compliance, we immediately performed a voluntary environmental audit and promptly reported the results to the MPCA in July 2018. The July report included a description of our potential noncompliance and a commitment to investigate the feasibility of the use of a non-hazardous solvent to replace TCE in our facility. We then initiated the discussion of the audit results in September 2018 by requesting a meeting with the MPCA to discuss the audit and facilitate a return to compliance as quickly as possible in cooperation with the MPCA. In October we requested an amendment to our air permit to allow installation of new pollution control equipment. We have complied with every request and shared information each step of the way with the MPCA. When the MPCA concluded that there was a potential health risk this January, we agreed to immediately stop all al coating operations, and have been working hard to make things right, both for the community and the environment.

The state settled with Water Gremlin in March. The company agreed to pay $7 million in fines and corrective action. Community members say trust has been broken with Water Gremlin and with the agency that is obligated to protect them."

"We certainly have failed in this case. We could've done a better job and our intent is to overachieve in this area and build trust," Smith said.

"How do you guarantee that another Water Gremlin doesn't happen in this state?" Mayerle asked.

"We will do our best. I think that there are guarantees or no promises," Smith said.

Despite community calls for it to shutdown, Water Gremlin is operational. Air monitoring is in place, and it's now using another less toxic chemical called DCE.

For those wondering just how many inspectors the MPCA has to offer oversight, Smith's team has eight to 10 inspectors covering 2,200 companies.

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