MDEQ: Rockford-area wells contaminated near old dumpsite

Plainfield Township, Wolverine Worldwide, waste site
The site of an old Wolverine Worldwide waste site off House Street in Plainfield Township. (Aug. 30, 2017)


PLAINFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Toxic chemicals from industrial waste dumped decades ago near Rockford is now in the nearby wells from which residents draw drinking water, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality says.

The likely source is a former Wolverine Worldwide waste site on House Street near US-131 south of 10 Mile Road. The company, which makes shoes, dumped sludge there in the 1960s.

Wolverine Worldwide is giving out bottled water and filters to people living in the area, but the big question is what damage already been done.

“Right now, we’re are not sure where all this is,” said David O’Donnell with the DEQ Grand Rapids District Office.

Perfluorinated chemicals, a large group of man-made chemicals used in waterproofing shoes, are at the center of the concern. PFAS are also found in fast food wrappers, Teflon, Scotchguard, shampoo and even makeup. They become a problem when you consume them.

Testing started in April after a citizen group contacted the DEQ with concerns about the old Wolverine Worldwide waste site. The company volunteered to pay for and conduct the expensive testing with oversight from the DEQ.

“These tests have to be done very carefully and you can easily make mistakes because these types of compounds are everywhere,” O’Donnell said.

According to DEQ, of the 21 wells with verified results, 14 show some level of PFAS and seven have unsafe levels. The homes are located on and around House Street. More homes still need to be tested.

“Don’t know if it affects us or not at this point,” said Bob Master, who lives down the road from the old dump site.

Master installed his well in 1978. He said he learned about the water concerns from a neighbor a couple of days ago. He said he’s not currently concerned about his health and hasn’t stopped drinking the water. The Masters are waiting to learn more before they make any changes.

“If we have to run city water down the street, then we have to run city water down the street,” Master said.

It’s unclear how many are affected, but DEQ believes anyone living on the east side of 131 is safe.

“Because you’ve been exposed doesn’t mean there is going to be a health effect. It’s very individual,” O’Donnell said.

Unfortunately, the health effects are very much unknown. The health department is working to schedule informational meetings.

The DEQ says Wolverine Worldwide has not broken any laws.

“The reason they are calling this an emerging contaminate is because this wasn’t something we thought about before,” O’Donnell explained.

This isn’t the first time former Wolverine Worldwide practices from 50 years ago have caused contamination. In the past, there have been multiple sites identified in and around Rockford that had elevated chemical levels because of industrial dumping from the footwear company.

Wolverine Worldwide refused an on-camera interview with 24 Hour News 8 Wednesday, but sent this statement:

“For more than a century, Wolverine Worldwide has been committed to the communities in which its employees live and work, especially the Rockford and Greater Grand Rapids area.  Consistent with this commitment, Wolverine is currently working closely with state and local officials to collect data from our former tannery in Rockford and the House Street area to better understand the possible presence of PFOA and PFOS at these two sites.

“Immediately after Wolverine first learned that PFOS may have been present in the 3M Scotchgard® applied to leather at its former tannery site in Rockford, the Company developed and submitted to the Department of Environmental Quality a proposed plan to voluntarily sample this site for not only PFOS, but also for PFOA and other PFAS compounds.  The Company received the DEQ’s comments on this plan last month and promptly scheduled sampling, which, due to the water table levels and other geologic factors, was first able to take place this week.  Since the 2010 closure of our Rockford tannery, Wolverine Worldwide has continued to work closely with state and local officials in monitoring the site.

“Earlier this summer, Wolverine learned that PFOA and PFOS were detected in water from a well in the House Street area, near property owned by Wolverine.  This property, which Wolverine formerly operated as a disposal area licensed and regulated by the State, has not been determined to be a source of either PFOA or PFOS, but given our longstanding commitment to this community Wolverine has been working with the DEQ and Kent County Health Department over the past several weeks to test samples from the area.  In addition, Wolverine has taken the initiative to assist homeowners in the House Street area by providing bottled water and water filtration systems certified for these substances.

“Wolverine submitted a proposed workplan to the DEQ to better understand the possible presence of PFOA and PFOS at its House Street property, which has recently been approved.  Preliminary work under this plan has already commenced, and additional on-site work is scheduled to commence on September 5, the earliest date available.

“Consistent with its long history in the community, Wolverine is committed to working with all appropriate agencies in their efforts to determine the status of these sites, and to keep the community informed along the way.”