Toxic tap water: Neighbors worry about illegal dump sites

Drinking tainted water for years, Belmont residents wonder about health affects

Plainfield Township, illegal dump site
An illegal dump site off House Street NE in Plainfield Township. (September 2017)


PLAINFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Even the scientists were shocked by what they found in Sandy Wynn-Stelt’s drinking water in July.

Now she’s wondering whether some of it could be coming from a recently reported illegal dump site next door to her home.

“I’m ground zero,” Wynn-Stelt said.

For 24 years, she has lived directly across the street from Wolverine Worldwide’s former legal landfill on House Street NE in Belmont. Chemicals used in waterproofing shoes have been found at several wells in the area.

It has led to sleepless nights.

“Absolutely. Every night,” Wynn-Stelt said. “Because you think that you try to eat healthy, you drink water, you do all those things, and then it turns out that you’re not supposed to drink the water, that it’ll kill you.”

The first time a Wolverine consultant tested her drinking water, in mid-July, it had 27,000 parts per trillion of a toxic chemical known as PFOS, which was in the Scotchgard that Wolverine used on its shoes for decades. The federal Environmental Protection Agency says the chemical could lead to birth defects, liver and thyroid problems, and cancer.

The EPA limit for drinking water is 70 parts per trillion.

“So they came back and tested it again and this last time I think it was closer to 38,000,” Wynn-Stelt said.

That’s 542 times the allowable limit.

“For 20 years, I’ve been drinking pretty much straight Scotchgard,” Wynn-Stelt said.

Her home is among 14 near the House Street dump where at least some of the chemical was been detected; half of those are over the EPA limit. More homes are being tested.

Wynn-Stelt and some neighbors wonder: Did it cause some of the medical conditions they aren’t ready to talk about publicly?

“I think about that every single night. It keeps me up every night,” Wynn-Stelt said.

ILLEGAL DUMP SITES: LARGE DRUMS COVERED IN RESIDUE

Wynn-Stelt wonders where it’s coming from: The dump used legally decades ago by Wolverine straight across the street from her? The illegal dump site on state property next door? Or both?

Neighbors led Target 8 to the illegal site next to Wynn-Stelt’s home, south of House Street and along with west side of southbound U.S. 131. It’s in a ravine on Michigan Department of Transportation property, more than 100 yards from the road, hidden in a dense woods and undisturbed, it would appear, for decades.

“It’s pretty significant. Drums are not well thought of,” said Richard Rediske, senior research scientist at Grand Valley State University’s Annis Water Resources Institute.

At Target 8’s request, Rediske walked the site.

Target 8 counted 18 rusty 55-gallon drums, some with a dark brown residue.

“It looks like it’s some kind of processed waste from the tannery,” Rediske said of the residue.

Near some barrels, Target 8 found unidentified chunks of brown goo — perhaps, Rediske said, glue used to make shoes.

“Adhesives typically have hazardous chemicals in them,” Rediske said.

Target 8 also showed him layers of processed animal hides buried in the side of a hill. He dug with an auger, finding scraps of hide two feet deep.

One neighbor who didn’t want to be identified told Target 8 he stumbled across the illegal dump site more than 30 years ago and saw sludge in the rusty barrels even back then.

That’s about the time Sandy Wynn-Stelt tried gardening in her yard for the first time.

“It took forever to rototill it because we kept having to pull up this stuff, which was hides and fill and just junk” buried a half-foot or so under her side yard, she said.

“They dumped everywhere here, all along here. They dumped everywhere,” she said.

Neighbors also led Target 8 to a second illegal dump site about a half-mile down House Street. It’s on private property, again in a deep ravine and not visible from the road.

Target 8 counted 21 rusty barrels, some still with brown residue.

“It looks like they dumped things that they weren’t allowed to dump in the waste trenches,” GVSU’s Rediske said.

Target 8 also found mounds of hides, some covered with moss. A small tree grew out of one of the mounds.

A retired truck driver, who didn’t want to be identified, told Target 8 he worked in the late 1960s for a trucking company that hauled sludge from the former Wolverine plant in Rockford.

“It was gray like concrete and smelled like rancid bacon,” he said.

He said he dumped it into waste trenches about six feet deep.

“Nobody knew anything different. It was 50 years ago and a lot of laws have come along since then that have made it illegal,” he said.

But he said he never hauled barrels or animal hides to House Street. He said he never dumped anything off Wolverine property.

“That would be illegal as could be as far as I know,” he said.

‘ALL YOU THINK ABOUT IS THE TAINTED WELL’

Neighbors said they hadn’t paid much attention to either illegal site until news broke about the contamination at Wolverine’s House Street dump.

“It hits home. All you think about is the tainted well that you have now,” said Ryan Schweinzger, who lives with his family next to one of the illegal dumps.

He also thinks about what he, his wife and two kids have been drinking for six years.

“I allow my kids to drink pop every now and then, and I always say, drink water, be hydrated. Now I kind of feel bad that I forced them to drink this water,” he said.

Neighbors, who are drinking bottled water, want answers.

“It should be a priority to track where this material is,” GVSU’s Rediske said. “We know it’s contaminating groundwater, now we know there’s other places offsite that may have the same materials.”

David O’Donnell, remediation division supervisor at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, told Target 8 his agency wasn’t aware of the illegal dumps until neighbors reported them in July. He said the DEQ is working with Wolverine, which is making plans to clean up. He said there is no timeline set for that.

In a statement, Wolverine Worldwide told Target 8 it is working closely the DEQ to clean up both the legal and illegal sites. The company said it plans to test wells at about 300 area homes.

Plainfield Township is taking steps to extend city water to the area, but that would take more than a year.