Homes built after township noted possible contamination

Belmont residents question state's response to discovery of tainted water

Rob Versluis, water
Rob Versluis, whose Belmont home was built after Plainfield Township noted a possible "environmental issue" in the area, speaks with Target 8 investigator Ken Kolker on Sept. 26, 2017.


PLAINFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Plainfield Township approved the building of seven homes and a National Guard armory, with wells for drinking water, near the Wolverine Worldwide dump site even after identifying it as an “environmental issue” in a 2004 report, Target 8 has found.

“Why would they ever allow any homes to be built or wells to be drilled until further testing would have been done?” wondered Rob Versluis, who lives in one of those newer homes on House Street NE in Belmont and whose water is tainted — apparently by the chemicals the shoe company dumped decades ago.

Residents on House Street told Target 8 they are questioning the response not only by the township, but also by Wolverine Worldwide and the state Department of Environmental Quality. They say quicker action could have led to the discovery of the contamination years ago.

They also wonder now about medical conditions they’ve already had and health problems they may still suffer.

RESIDENTS WORRY ABOUT HEALTH EFFECTS

Rob Versluis was 19 in 2005 when he bought his home on House Street. The taps draw well water. He said he knew nothing of the Wolverine Worldwide dump a few doors down.

And until Target 8 told him Tuesday, he also didn’t know that in 2004 — the year before his home was built — Plainfield Township wrote a report about its parks system identifying Wolverine’s dump as an “environmental issue.”

Rob Versluis, water
Rob Versluis, whose Belmont home was built after Plainfield Township noted a possible “environmental issue” in the area, speaks with Target 8 investigator Ken Kolker on Sept. 26, 2017.

Wolverine had closed the dump in about 1970.

“Wolverine boot company once maintained a dump for their tannery operations,” the township’s 2004 report stated. “Tanning processes result in a number of harmful by-products, some of which may have been dumped here. Once again, although the extent of the contamination is not known, the impact does not appear significant.”

Versluis said health officials this summer told him the chemical known as PFOS — which is in the Scotchgard that Wolverine used for decades on its shoes — can cause brittle bones and lead to complications with pregnancies.

This summer, he said, his 3-year-old son broke his femur while riding his scooter.

“So that really makes me think,” Versluis said.

His wife has had three miscarriages.

“It seems like they would have been able to connect the dots on the PFOS that could potentially be in the groundwater,” Versluis said.

Plainfield Township Superintendent Cameron Van Wyngarden, who’s had the job four years, defended the township.

“I feel pretty secure that no one at the time had any indication of what may be in the groundwater,” he said.

When asked if officials should have known or if somebody should have tested sooner, he replied: “That’s an excellent question and it’s why we want to investigate this and learn what we can as well.”

Kent County Health Department Environmental Health Director Sara Simmonds told Target 8 that her agency issued well permits for the homes near the dump site, but only after requiring more stringent than usual water tests, including for metals.

She said the health department’s record showed the dump held only “organic” material.

But Simmonds said the county didn’t know to test for PFOS.

DID DEQ TAKE TOO LONG TO RESPOND?

Neighbors said there’s plenty of blame to go around.

“I think Wolverine plays a part, I think DEQ plays a part, or EPA or whoever is in charge of managing our environment and making sure this doesn’t happen,” said Sandy Wynn-Stelt, who lives across the street from the dump. “I think Plainfield Township plays a part.”

Some residents said they believe the DEQ took too long to respond after learning about the possibility of PFOS at Wolverine’s dump sites in January. At DEQ’s request, Wolverine started testing well water at homes next to the House Street dump six months later.

“One would have thought after Flint they’d have beat feet out here,” Wynn-Stelt said. “I mean, how many times do they need to poison the citizens of Michigan before somebody starts saying why do we have a DEQ? Truly, that’s what I’m wondering.”

The water at her home across the street from Wolverine’s old dump tested 542 times the EPA advisory limit for PFOS — one of 14 with tainted water.

It was Grand Valley State University research scientist Rick Rediske who alerted the DEQ about the PFOS threat. He said he would be “absolutely” concerned about how long the testing took to start if he lived on House Street.

But a local DEQ supervisor said his agency has moved quickly.

“In the time scale of remedial actions that I’ve been a part of, this is moving really quickly,” DEQ District Supervisor David O’Donnell said.

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

He said Wolverine first tested several homes north of the dump in April, finding no PFOS in their water. Then on May 30, federal tests not associated with Wolverine and DEQ investigation found PFOS at the Michigan Army National Guard’s Belmont Armory about a half-mile southwest of the dump. That led to testing of wells, including Wynn-Stelt’s, along the south side of the dump in mid-August.

“It takes a while to organize these things,” O’Donnell said. “You have to set up sampling protocols, you have to arrange for the lab, you have to arrange for the person to do that work. It unfortunately doesn’t happen overnight.”

SCIENTIST: PEOPLE SHOULD HAVE LINKED DUMP SITE TO PFOS

Wolverine started using Scotchgard on its shoes and boots in the late 1950s. For years, it legally dumped waste, including sludge from its Rockford factory, at the House Street landfill, until about 1970.

EPA records show that 3M, the maker of Scotchgard, phased out PFOS by 2002, citing environmental worries.

By 2005, the EPA said evidence suggested PFOS caused cancer in humans.

“Most people realize since the early 2000s that Scotchgard was a hazardous chemical,” said Rediske, the GVSU scientist. “People should have associated the tannery because they produced Hush Puppy shoes with that particular chemical.”

Rediske said Scotchgard was part of the Hush Puppy patent.

In a statement to Target 8, Wolverine said it didn’t know PFOS was in the Scotchgard until this year after a Rockford citizens’ group, Concerned Citizens for Responsible Development, working with the Grand Valley professor, raised the question.

“I can’t go back and second-guess what people should have known when,” the DEQ’s O’Donnell said. “Being able to make the connection between 3M discontinuing a product and a product that was disposed of 40 and 50 years ago is incredibly difficult.”

It all leaves Rob Versluis worried about his kids’ future.

“When it’s your children, you know, they might be fine today, but who knows what’s 10 years down the road?” he said.