Water Gremlin, which makes fishing lures, lead sinkers, and battery terminals in White Bear Township, spent a surprising amount of time crafting a narrative for its cartoon mascot, Gremlin.
The “about me” section on the company website says Gremlin loves swimming, snorkeling, cinnamon toast, and banjo music, and that he and his friends are known to get a little “mischievous” from time to time.
It’s perhaps an unfortunate parallel to the company’s real-life reputation. If you’ve heard the name Water Gremlin recently, it’s probably because of its air pollution.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency discovered in January that the company had been releasing hundreds of tons of an industrial solvent called trichloroethylene into the air over 15 years – along with lead and other toxic chemicals -- and failing to tell anyone about it. Prolonged exposure to the solvent can increase the risk of several types of cancers and birth defects.
In March, the agency slapped Water Gremlin with one of the heaviest penalties in Minnesota history: $7 million in fines.
But there was more mischief afoot. This month, the agency ordered Water Gremlin to immediately shut down its coating operations, which used yet another toxic chemical, DCE. An investigation discovered that the company had been releasing prohibited levels of the stuff into the soil beneath the plant, and possibly into the surrounding area.
Pollution Control says Water Gremlin knew this a full month before letting officials know.
When asked about it, the company sent a statement to WCCO, saying the “health and well-being of [its] community continues to be [its] no. 1 priority,” and that it was working hard to “earn back their trust.”
It apparently has a funny way of showing it. WCCO now reports that the company had found a way to keep operating on the sly. Rather than deal with state regulations, Water Gremlin has been loading up trucks of its battery terminals and sending them to a new location in Hudson, Wisconsin, where a company called Hi Tec Finishing will handle the coating process.
After the report came out, Hi Tec announced it would terminate the relationship. The company said it was “unaware” that the chemicals used in the coating process were “unsafe and unhealthy,” and Hudson Mayor Rich O’Connor said he thought Hi Tec was “doing the right thing” by giving Water Gremlin the axe.
Water Gremlin didn’t return City Pages’ request for comment. In the wake of everything that’s happened, state officials and residents alike have been left to piece together its motivations. It’s hard to say for sure how much of this was misfortune and how much was mischief. But it’s leaving neighbors like Leigh Thiel hoping criminal charges are next.
“How many mistakes is a company allowed to make before it’s no longer a mistake?” she asked WCCO.