White Bear Lake Area Residents and Legislators Continue the Fight Against TCE

An important issue we tracked and worked on this legislative session at Conservation Minnesota was the bipartisan proposal to ban the industrial solvent trichloroethylene, more commonly known as TCE. Minnesota based company Water Gremlin, located in the White BearLake area, uses TCE to clean and coat battery terminal pieces and makes fishing sinkers. The chemical is also commonly used for dry cleaning stain removal and as a metal degreaser.

Water Gremlin has been using TCE legally to manufacture its products, but state regulators recently found the company was violating its state clean air permit by venting TCE at high enough levels to threaten human life up to 1.5 miles around the facility in White Bear Lake Township.This violation has been happening since at least 2009 due to a failing carbon absorber used to clean air emissions, and the long-term implications of that failure to human health are yet to be known in the surrounding communities.

This cancer-causing chemical and Water Gremlin’s subsequent illegal level of emission discovered by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) led to a bipartisan effort to ban TCE in Minnesota. A successful state ban would be the first in the country. During this session both chambers voted to outlaw TCE effective in 2020 with some additions and exceptions along the way. The efforts were led by freshman Representative Amy Wazlawik (DFL-38B) and Senator Roger Chamberlain (R-SD 38), a refreshing show of work across the aisle.The legislators also sponsored matching bills that would create a task force to guide the study and mitigation of TCE’s effects on the community.

The bills and the ban, however, ultimately failed in conference committee during the special session likely due to interference of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, according to state officials and legislators. A larger conversation of how to spend the settlement money the state received from Water Gremlin will likely be back on the table in the 2020session as lawmakers move to successfully build on what failed this time around.

Moving forward, the citizens of the White Bear area are not giving up on mobilizing to fight for the ban and neither are their legislators.The White Bear Area Neighborhood Concerned Citizens Group (NCCG), led by five local women, meet every other week to host listening sessions, meet with legislators, pour over the details of the MPCA Water Gremlin Remedial Investigation Work Plan, talk about public health issues, and update the public on the policy process. They have hosted guest speakers from the Department of Public Health, MnTap, and the MPCA, and were recently visited by Senator Chuck Wiger and Representative Peter Fischer. Water Gremlin is testing out using a new chemical, DCE (trans1,2-Dichloroethylene), under monitoring of the MPCA, but that is not quelling citizens’ concerns. Not only is there still a chemical emitting into the environment and into this same community, but the damage of TCE fort he past 17 years to our resources and public health may already be done.

Some concerns expressed at the recent meeting of the NCCG are about Water Gremlins’ ability to self-report their emissions and how other companies could be misreporting. There were also concerns about cancer, children’s long-term health effects, and the lack of wildlife around White Bear Lake. People also voiced disappointment in the private sector industry’s involvement at the legislature, and that, according to one citizen, “the rights of the company are more important than that of taxpayers and community members.” Another citizen highlighted that they believed “money’s more important than human health” and seeing family members deal with cancer is “disheartening.” The community is unsure of what the end result of legislation will be or the long-term effects on public health—including air quality in the area and in Minnesota and natural resources that have been affected by this pollution and industry neglect.

Working in the East Metro with Conservation Minnesota has allowed me a window into this community issue and I’ve been so warmly accepted by the community members as we continue to battle for this ban. If you’re interested in getting involved with the NCCG, find their meeting information and please reach out to your legislators no matter where you live to lend your voice to this important issue.