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Wolverine Worldwide (parent company of Merrell, Chaco, Keds, Hush Puppies, and other footwear brands) might be headed to court over allegations that its tannery, which closed down in 2009 when production moved overseas, contaminated the drinking water in Rockford, Michigan, area.
In March 2017, the DEQ discovered PFAS (per– and polyfluoralkyl substances) at the former Wolverine disposal site. PFAS are a chemical associated with the 3M Scotchguard waterproofing product the company used on its popular Hush Puppy shoes.
Back in the 60s, Wolverine disposed of the chemicals in a licensed nearby facility, adhering to the standards and best practices of the time. But that waste is now linked to groundwater contamination in Kent County. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality reported that 14 out of 21 wells tested show some level of PFAS.
Christopher Hufnagel, Senior Vice President of Wolverine Worldwide, confirmed that number. “We’re in the process of testing over 300 wells in the area,” he says.
The former dumpsites, which contain scraps from the old tannery, and more than 300 homes in the area are also being tested.
Steve Kelso, marketing and communications manager at the Kent County Health Department, says “Some of those have returned results that are beyond the acceptable levels of PFAS,” he says.
“The residents who have been affected are understandably concerned,” Kelso says. “Can you imagine someone telling you that the water you have been pumping out of your well for all of these years is not safe and maybe it hasn’t been for the however many years you have lived there?”
Hufnagel says that the health impacts are still an emerging science, but Wolverine is not taking this situation lightly. “We’re a fixture in this community,” he says. “Back then in the 60s, we disposed of those bi-products in a state-licensed and -regulated facility. The state watched us do it. We know more today than we did then. We applied best practices then and we still do. It was legal. But we understand what’s happening now, and we’re not waiting for someone to tell us what to do about it.”
Wolverine takes action
In a letter to area homeowners dated September 21, 2017, Wolverine writes: “Earlier this summer, Wolverine learned that PFAS were detected in water from a well in the House Street area, near property owned by Wolverine. Since then, we have been working with DEQ and KCHD to sample over 100 wells for PFAS within a study area established by the DEQ. This study area was established using sound investigate principles, and represents the focus of the work right now.”
Rockford East Middle School staff and students are drinking bottled water the test come in.
“Our kids all go to these schools, we go to the same churches, these are our family friends and neighbors,” says Hufnagel. “We want to make this right for the community.”
Aside from delivering thousands of gallons of water, Wolverine has offered to install 338 homes in the study area and the buffer zones two filter solutions: A single tap source or a whole house system. (A whole house system costs approximately $5k.)
Residents prepare to sue
Residents are understandably concerned.
Studies show that PFAS can lead to growth and learning issues with children and a developing fetus, decreased fertility, increased risk of cancer, increase in cholesterol, and impacts on the immune system, according to the CDC.
The Michigan-based firm, Varnum Law, has been retained by 50 residents filing claims against Wolverine Worldwide. The claims state that the handling resulted in possible danger to residents’ health and the environment. Varnum is investigating the correlation between the alleged chemicals from the Wolverine dumpsite and health problems that residents have been experiencing after drinking tap water.
Varnum Law attorney Aaron Phelps says that people are extremely upset after using these wells for decades. “Many residents have serious health issues and now wonder if they are linked to this long-time exposure,” he says. “Residents want more information, but it has been too slow coming.” Phelps adds that in addition to possible health issues, property values have taken a significant hit and will for some time to come.
Wolverine Worldwide received a letter on Friday with the intent to sue over contamination at the old dumpsite.
Local outdoor shops who carry Wolverine brands, including Jon Holmes, one of the managers of Bill & Paul’s Sporthaus in Grand Rapids, did not wish to comment.
Hufnagel says he understands the community’s anxiety, and he shares it. He says the company is approaching this with “an bundance of caution. We’re smarter than we were about these things 50 years ago, and we’re gonna be even smarter about them 50 years from now.”