RAMSEY COUNTY, Minn. — A Ramsey County judge on Thursday extended the shutdown at Water Gremlin an additional 24 hours, as owners of the business work with health and industry officials to control lead contamination that is impacting children of employees.
Water Gremlin, which manufactures battery posts and fishing weights made from lead, had agreed to comply with an emergency 72-hour shutdown after St. Paul and Ramsey County Public Health investigators determined that at least 12 children of workers at Water Gremlin had elevated blood lead levels. Two of those had blood lead levels above the level of 15 micrograms per deciliter, a measurement that indicates a particularly serious health risk for children.
Since the business ceased operations Monday, owners of the business have been working on a plan to ensure workers aren't bringing lead dust home on their clothing and in vehicles, to protect children and families from exposure.
The judge will hear that plan in court on Friday, and if it is found satisfactory Water Gremlin could start “reduced operations” as early as this weekend.
"I recognize that their safety and the safety of their children is important, but if they're not getting paid and they don't have an income, I need to balance that - they won't have a home," " said Judge Leonardo Castro. "They won't have a home to go to or a car to get into, right, if they're not getting paid, so we have to move with speed to get his done."
The State Departments of Health and Labor and Industry had asked the judge to impose an injunction that would keep Water Gremlin closed indefinitely, until they could prove that the problem of lead leaving the plant could be controlled.
"We can't have lead filing continue to migrate out of the facility and into the families homes where children are being poisoned," argued Pete Surdo, attorney for the State of Minnesota. "The state and Ramsey County has been working with Water Gremlin for almost a year to implement the very things they're proposing in their revised clean exit plan. They haven't worked. We won't know why until we dig under the hood a little bit."
An attorney for Water Gremlin argued that the company couldn't start implementing their revised plan until they started up again.
"The problem is that the company can't implement the action plan ... if the company is closed down," said attorney Thaddeus Lightfoot.
In a statement, Carl Dubois, vice president of international manufacturing for Water Gremlin, said:
“Water Gremlin will continue to work with local and state officials, as it has done for the past year, to improve our workplace. We have great employees and together we are committed to responding to all of the concerns raised by the state agencies. We appreciate the comments of Commissioner Leppink and look forward to working with the DOLI and MDH to implement our action plan to reopen the plant.”
On Tuesday, dozens of Water Gremlin employees descended on the State Capitol to protest the state's decision to temporarily shut down operations.
"We as the Water Gremlin employees are here today to make it clear to you guys to work with Water Gremlin and not shut Water Gremlin down," a worker in the back holding his daughter called out to Department of Labor and Industry Commissioner Nancy Leppink.
The Minnesota Department of Health, Department of and Labor and Industry, and St. Paul – Ramsey County Public Health issued a joint statement on Thursday, saying they will continue to work with the court to make sure Water Gremlin takes the necessary steps to prevent lead poisoning of workers' children.
"We filed our petition due to the significant risk facing the children of the workers," the statement reads. "Lead poisoning can cause learning, behavior and health problems in children. Lead exposure before or during pregnancy has been linked to miscarriages, premature births and stillbirths. High blood lead levels in children can be difficult to detect and can cause harm to children’s nervous systems and brains. That is why it is important to have children tested even if they seem healthy. High blood levels do not cause fevers, and there might not be other symptoms."
The statement also says they will continue to help the workers impacted.