Former tannery workers: Wolverine Worldwide isn't there for us

Former Wolverine Worldwide employees responded to the water worries in Plainfield township.

ROCKFORD, MICH. - Wolverine Worldwide should be more proactive in caring for former employees at its tannery, in wake of the contamination of private wells in northern Kent County by chemicals used in the shoe making process, ex-workers told WZZM 13.

The large-scale waste disposal investigation in Kent County began in July when Wolverine Worldwide and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) found wells testing positive for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (or perfluorinated chemicals), known as PFAS, near an old Wolverine dumpsite at 1855 House St. in Belmont. 

Wolverine Worldwide dumped excess sludge from its tannery, which closed in 2009 and was demolished two years later, at the House Street dump from 1939 to 1970. The company began using Scotchgard, which contained PFAS, to waterproof its Hush Puppies shoes in 1958. 

Since the discovery at House Street, the investigation, led by Wolverine and overseen by MDEQ, has covered more than 1,100 wells in Plainfield and Algoma Townships at 21 different potential dumpsites linked to Wolverine waste. 

According to MDEQ, of the 614 test results received in the House Street sample area, 180 homes tested positive for PFAS, but below the Environmental Protection Agency's safe drinking water advisory level of 70 parts per trillion. Thirty homes tested above that advisory. 

News of the dumpsites was shocking, but contamination coming from the tannery is not surprising, said Cindy Koomen, who worked at the tannery for almost 34 years. 

The highest recorded PFAS reading at a well near the House Street dump was 38,000 parts per trillion. A study of ground and surface water at the tannery campus, located at 123 North Main St. in Rockford, released by Wolverine on Nov. 9 had PFAS readings max out at 490,000 parts per trillion. 

"I don't care how much fill dirt they put [at the tannery campus] to make it look good and all that – it's still contaminated," said David Avery, who worked there for 28 years. 

Wolverine Worldwide used Scotchgard containing PFOS/PFOA, in the PFAS family, in its color mills. 3M, the multinational conglomerate that created the product, phased the chemical out of the product in 2002. 

"We weren't told about Scotchgard, PFAS, anything," Avery said. "We didn't know what we [were] putting in there." 

Wolverine initially said it did not know about the presence of PFOS/PFOA in Scotchgard until recently. But the shoemaker conceded to meeting in 1999 with 3M to discuss PFOS/PFOA in Scotchgard after the conglomerate released a letter detailing the encounter on Nov. 5, 2017.

The letter confirmed that 3M conducted medical studies on employees “occupationally exposed to PFOS for over 20 years.” The study said the subjects has PFAS in their blood at levels more than 100 times those who were not occupationally exposed to the chemicals, but maintained the evidence did “not suggest any human health effect associated with [the results].”

Officials from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) said PFAS is present in the blood of most people, and the health effects of exposure to the contaminant are largely unknown.

“This is an emerging chemical of concern,” said Dr. Eden Wells, chief medical executive for MDHHS. “We really don’t know as much as we’d like to know about this family of chemicals.”

There are areas of the U.S. population, like the Ohio River Valley, that have been medically studied because of extreme exposure to PFAS chemicals, Wells said. That testing was done after industrial contamination.

“In these areas, there has been an association…more long-term…of those people with high levels in the environment around them of potentially having risks of higher cholesterol, an effect on the liver function,” she said. “There may be an association with fertility issues. And there may be an association with certain cancers such as kidney cancer and testicular cancer.”

Employees were exposed to many other chemicals than PFAS, the former employees said.

“It was not a clean place to work in,” Koomen said. “There was nothing clean about it…sometimes you had to run to the window to catch your breath.”

Avery said some equipment was outdated, which he thinks lead to some chemical spills.

“I was working on the [sander], and, all of a sudden, somebody dumped the mill downstairs, ammonia, whatever,” he said. “We started running away from the machine. We got about 50 feet [away]…and collapsed against it. We told our supervisor. ‘Don’t worry,’ he came up to us. ‘It’s harmless, it won’t hurt you.’”

Wolverine declined WZZM’s request for an interview, but responded to the employees in a statement saying, “Wolverine used responsible practices at the time for tannery operations.”

The company’s tannery site study found certain monitoring wells with elevated levels of ammonia and chromium. The ammonia reading exceeded MDEQ’s drinking water criteria by 230 times. The chromium reading tested 68 times greater than the drinking water criteria and 618 times the groundwater surface water criteria. 

Before Wolverine created a computerized tan yard, it’s possible the chemicals washed off the pig hides got into the ground en route to the disposal plant, said Ray Bush, who started working at the tannery in 1971.

“[Waste] went on the floor in the drains, ditches back behind the mills, run down and the they ran it into a pipe over to the disposal plant” Bush said. “That’s how I think a lot of it got into the ground because the pipes, the drains might’ve leaked and just went into the dirt.” 

The contamination at the tannery land in Rockford is more of a threat to organisms in the Rogue River than to human health from drinking water, said David O’Donnell, a field operations supervisor for MDEQ.

"While there is some contamination with some low level organic compounds and some metals and the ammonia, they're not being used as a drinking water source,” O’Donnell said.

The city of Rockford stopped using the Rogue River as its municipal water source in 2002. The 70 ppt advisory level doesn’t apply to the Rogue River because “It is not used for drinking water,” said Wolverine in a press release on Nov. 9.

Employees weren’t thinking about health and hazards years ago, Koomen said.

“We were just young and happy to have a job and put up with quite a few things,” she said. “But you always had this feeling, this above-your-head thinking, that something [was] wrong. But you just didn’t do it because you [were] afraid of being let go or put on a job you didn’t want to be on – that did happen if people complained.”

In response, Wolverine Worldwide said, “Wolverine has always attempted to provide its employees with a good working environment, and to address questions and issues promptly.”

The former tannery employees said they want Wolverine Worldwide to show more accountability and look into their health concerns.

“I’ve heard of [coworkers having] thyroid problems, osteoporosis…I just think it’s something that really needs to check out,” Koomen said.

“They should have a place where we can – just go to your doctor and have them check you out,” Bush said. “They should be liable for it.”

Wolverine Worldwide cited health experts in response, “Blood testing is neither routine nor recommended in communities addressing potential PFAS impact on drinking water.”

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