Lawsuits target Wolverine Worldwide over tainted well water

Rockford town hall meeting as water worries linger

GRAND RAPIDS, MICH. - Three families living near an old Wolverine Worldwide dumpsite are suing the Rockford-based shoemaker, claiming Wolverine “completely ignored all of its toxic tannery waste’’ now linked to groundwater contamination.

“Now, due to Wolverine’s tannery waste contaminating drinking water, the residents’ use, enjoyment and value of their property has been substantially impaired,’’ the lawsuits claim. “The residents and their children face an increased risk to a host of deadly and severe health problems, some of which have materialized.’’

The lawsuits filed in Kent County Circuit Court were not unexpected; more are likely to follow, said Aaron Phelps, an attorney with Varnum LLP in Grand Rapids. The lawsuits filed by Varnum contend the toxic ground water has hurt property values and jeopardized the health of area residents.

“We represent over 120 residents in the Belmont area, so we would anticipate filing many more claims in the coming days and weeks,’’ Phelps said on Wednesday. “They’re going to be filed probably continually over the next several days.’’

A representative for Wolverine Worldwide declined comment on Wednesday.

Plaintiffs listed in the lawsuits are Michael and Laura Metz, who live on Meek Drive NE, Theodore J. Ryfiak, Jr., who lives on House Street NE and Melvin and Marlene Nylaan, who have a home on Imperial Pine Drive NE.

Their well water tested positive for perfluoroalkyl substances, of PFAS, a chemical contained in Scotchgard that Wolverine used to waterproof shoes and boots. Test results on water from the three homes in Plainfield Township were above the EPA recommended level of 70 parts per trillion.

The lawsuits claim Wolverine “completely ignored all of its toxic tannery waste that it dumped in Belmont, Michigan.’’

It also ignored many warning signs – including revelation 20 years ago that the main ingredients in Scotchgard were toxic, according to the EPA, to an “extraordinary degree.’’

Scotchgard manufacturer 3M met with Wolverine executives about PFAS and sent a follow-up letter reiterating the importance of the information, the lawsuits claim. The Minnesota-based company shortly thereafter discontinued the use PFAS in its products.

“Wolverine, however, continued to boast about its historical use of Scotchgard in its manufacturing process until just a few months ago, despite Scotchgard’s damaging effects to the environment and human health,’’ the lawsuits claim.

The company also “did nothing’’ about its old dump site, knowing it was “completely unsatisfactory for environmental purposes, which is the primary reason Wolverine stopped using it in the 1970s.’’

The groundwater contamination came to light in May when water tested at a U.S. Armory site near the dump revealed “an alarming amount of PFAS.’’

“Wolverine could no longer ignore its problem,’’ the lawsuits claim.  “Wolverine’s attempted cover-up of the situation has only exacerbated community fear and anxiety. Wolverine lied about when it knew about PFAS and their harmful effects.’’

The lawsuits say Wolverine told the public and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality that it first learned of PFAS in 2016, but then documentation was released showing that Wolverine has known about PFAS since at least January 10, 1999. After getting caught ‘red-handed,’ Wolverine “resorted to additional mischaracterizations.’’

Wolverine began using Scotchgard in 1958 to treat shoe leather and dumped tannery waste on and around the House Street site and at licensed and unlicensed dumps. Sites include Michigan Department of Transportation property across from the House Street dump.

The lawsuits contend more than 200 wells have tested positive for PFAS. “The only thing separating them and their family from toxic water is a filter, the effectiveness of which can only be determined by regular water testing, which is extremely expensive.’’

“Wolverine will not commit to any long-term solution at this point,’’ the suits claim. “Wolverine has not agreed to pay for the extension of a municipal water system’’ to the homes impacted.

The contamination is causing “significant distress and harm and will continue to do so into the indefinite future.’’

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