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Health officials ask court to halt Water Gremlin operations

An injunction was filed after health investigators found at least 12 children of workers at Water Gremlin had elevated blood lead levels.

RAMSEY COUNTY, Minn. — The commissioners of the Minnesota Departments of Health (MDH) and Labor and Industry (DLI) have filed for a temporary injunction to shut down operations at Water Gremlin, a Ramsey County company linked by testing to lead poisoning in the children of workers.

DLI Commissioner Nancy Leppink says the action became necessary 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, including two children with blood lead levels above the level of 15 micrograms per deciliter. That measurement indicates a particularly serious health risk for children. 

Following an inspection of the Water Gremlin plant in White Bear Township Oct. 26, investigators determined that efforts to eliminate "take home" lead, contaminants spread from workers to their homes and families, were insufficient. On Monday Leppink used the state's Occupational Safety and Health Act to order Water Gremlin to shut down for a 72-hour period, then teamed up with MDH Commissioner Jan Malcom to file an injunction that would keep the company closed until it can prove "take home lead" can be contained. 

Leppink says Water Gremlin has agreed to the 72-hour shutdown. A Ramsey County judge will consider the request for an injunction that would shut the company down indefinitely. 

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“Confirmation of a second case of childhood lead poisoning made it clear that practices at the plant were not sufficient to reduce the risk,” Commissioner Malcolm said. “Lead is a serious health concern, especially for children. We needed to act quickly to protect the workers and their families.”

Carl Dubois, president of international manufacturing for Water Gremlin said in a statement that the top contributing factor is the employees' individual hygiene practices. Here is Dubois' full statement:

"Water Gremlin baselines existing blood lead levels for new employees and routinely monitors employee blood lead levels to ensure that we have a safe working environment. None of our employees are above OSHA action levels for blood lead.

"Any lapse in employee industrial hygiene practices is the top contributing factor to an increase in an employees’ blood lead level and the inadvertent home exposure. To ensure the safety of our employees and their families, hygiene training and policies have long been in place. If necessary, the company will utilize disciplinary action for employees who do not follow those policies. Since we first engaged with Ramsey County in August 2018, Water Gremlin has enhanced these policies and implemented a continuous employee awareness campaign to reaffirm their importance. 

"We were saddened to learn today that the enhanced campaign did not result in positive changes for some of our employees’ families. We are working with Ramsey County, the Minnesota Department of Health and the Department of Labor (OSHA) to immediately implement protective actions."

MDH says while elevated blood lead levels in children are typically associated with in-home exposure to lead paint, investigators in these cases determined that the children’s elevated blood lead levels were linked to a separate issue called “take-home lead.” Without effective industrial hygiene and control practices, lead dust can accumulate on workers’ bodies, clothing, shoes and personal items, and may be brought home unknowingly. Because lead dust is heavy, it accumulates in homes and vehicles and is not easily removed.

The bottom line is that family members living with those workers can ingest the lead dust, which then accumulates in their bodies. 

RELATED: White Bear company agrees to $7M environmental settlement

Recognizing that the shutdown will impact the lives of Water Gremlin employees and their families, the state and Ramsey County are working with health officials and the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). A one-stop help center has been set up at the Vadnais Heights Sports Center to:

  • Arrange for additional lead testing
  • Offer training, career planning, job search assistance and additional support through the Dislocated Worker Program
  • Share options available through Dislocated Worker and Unemployment Insurance programs
  • Continue sharing of information on Ramsey County's dedicated Water Gremlin webpage

The Vadnais Heights Sports Center help center will be open Monday until 5 p.m.; Tuesday and Wednesday between 9 a.m and 6 p.m.; Thursday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. and Friday from 9 a.m. to noon. 

Water Gremlin has been in the headlines a lot in 2019, particularly for the historic $7 million settlement it reached with the state about long-term TCE pollution in the surrounding neighborhood.

Leigh Thiel, a neighbor who has been active and outspoken following the TCE revelation, said she feels for the employees who are now impacted.

"After a certain point in time, those mistakes are no longer mistakes," she said. "They're a way of doing business."

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