UPDATE: The first round of lawsuits against Wolverine World Wide in Michigan have been filed, as reported by MLive. Attorneys who are representing four homeowners with contaminated drinking water say as many as 50 more cases may be filed soon.
The litigants are seeking unspecified monetary damages and cleanup of the main tannery-sludge dumpsite. The suits allege that Wolverine violated the law by not taking reasonable precautions against foreseeable outcomes like groundwater contamination, and by polluting groundwater when it left waste drums and other tannery debris on bare ground during the 1960s. The filings also allege that Wolverine knew the site was hazardous as far back as the 1970s, but took no action.
At a recent town hall meeting, an official with Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) said Wolverine has not provided any waste disposal records. DEQ staff said the Environmental Protection Agency has been acting as an advisor to the response team in Michigan.
Wolverine recently offered to install filtration systems for nearly 340 houses that were in the initial testing area and is expected to extend that offer to the additional houses included in this latest expansion. Four public schools in the Rockford district are being tested.
Initial testing in some areas over the summer found levels of PFCs that were well beyond federal health guidelines and Plainfield Township is working to design a water main extension that can eventually serve these areas. While the DEQ and local officials are asking for tips, they have also pushed back on calls to test in areas that are believed to be safe based on groundwater flow.
- Following the recent discovery that footwear company Wolverine World Wide dumped toxic tannery sludge in an unlined Michigan landfill during the 1960s, areas residents have become increasingly concerned about exposure to additional sites near their homes. More than 50 residents filed a notice of intent to sue the company on Oct. 13, in an effort to force Wolverine to cover the cost of clean-up and potential medical expenses under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), as reported by MLive.
- Two dump sites have been discovered so far, and residents in the community of Belmont have recently found old metal drums and other debris on their property that indicate the activity may have been more widespread, as reported by The Detroit News. The main concern for local health officials is that perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) in this waste can cause cancer or other medical issues, as reported by Michigan Radio.
- Wolverine has reportedly been cooperative with state and local efforts so far. The company has been funding bottled water for area residents and students at a nearby middle school as a precaution. According to Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) no evidence of PFCs has been found in the water supply and tests are ongoing.
Wolverine operated a manufacturing facility in the area from 1908 to 2000 and is still headquartered in the small city of Rockford. According to the DEQ, the company's activities at two sites in Kent County were licensed at the time. Whether that's the case for potential dumping at other sites, or if that material is linked to Wolverine, remains unclear. The DEQ has asked area residents to report any potential tips, particularly if leather scraps or other related items are found, and began removing some of the material this week.
The Environmental Protection Agency says that the broader category of PFCs, which includes multiple man-made chemicals, are "very persistent in the environment and in the human body." They have traditionally been used to make cookware, apparel and furniture stick- and stain-resistant. In Wolverine's case, the chemicals came from its use of Scotchgard for Hush Puppies shoes. Because these chemicals have become commonplace, the question is at what levels they're being found in water supplies or blood tests.
These chemicals have recently shown up near former industrial disposal sites throughout the Northeast in New York, Vermont and New Hampshire, among other states. The discovery of toxic chemicals on or near older, closed landfills is not uncommon, and can often lead to lengthy and expensive remediation processes. The nearly 41-year old RCRA has helped tighten standards in the decades since and given residents more recourse when issues do arise. Though with much uncertainty remaining, and memories of the Flint water crisis still fresh, this may be little comfort for the residents in these Michigan communities dealing with Wolverine's decades-old waste.