Company responsible for toxic tap water: ‘We want to fix it’

Likely carcinogen found in wells around long-closed Wolverine Worldwide dump

plainfield township, wolverine worldwide, contaminated water
A well in Belmont that was contaminated, likely by chemicals from an old Wolverine Worldwide dump site. (Sept. 26, 2017)


ROCKFORD, Mich. (WOOD) — A Wolverine Worldwide executive told Target 8 he doesn’t know how many old dump sites might turn up in northern Kent County, but he said the shoemaker will take responsibility for them.

“This is certainly a tough situation that no one wants to be in right now, but we want to make it right, we want to fix it,” Christopher Hufnagel, senior vice president for strategy for the Rockford-based company, said Thursday.

Target 8 had reached out to interview Wolverine officials in recent weeks, but the company declined. Then, Thursday, the company reached out to Target 8, saying it wanted to let residents know what it is doing to respond to a growing water crisis.

On Thursday, a new dump site recently identified in the 8100 block of Ramsdell Drive NE prompted nearby East Rockford Middle School to stop using well water until testing can determine if it’s contaminated with a likely carcinogen. As a precaution, students and staff used bottled water.

The dump site is one of four in the Rockford area.

“As sites come up, and as we learn information, whether it comes from you or a resident, I think we’re working hard to investigate those sites,” Hufnagel said.

>>Inside woodtv.com: Complete coverage of the toxic tap water investigation

Wolverine consultants, working with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, said they are testing to see where PFOS, a chemical once used in Scotchgard, has contaminated well water. Wolverine once used Scotchgard to weatherproof its Hush Puppies.

“What we’re trying to track down here is 3M, Scotchgard, sludge, waste product that has those compounds,” Hufnagel said. “That’s the most important thing.”

PFOS is already in well water of homes at Wolverine’s long-closed House Street NE dump, some at high levels, raising fears of cancer and other health problems.

Hufnagel said it appears it got there in sludge hauled from the former Rockford tannery. The dump, which was legal, closed in about 1970.

The contamination from that dump spread at least 1.3 miles.

Wolverine Worldwide, Belmont, House Street, water contamination
Map: Sites in Belmont where wells have tested positive for PFOS contamination and their relation to a former Wolverine Worldwide dump.

“We’re not surprised by anything,” Hufnagel said. “We’re trying to collect all the data that we can get and make really good decisions about where we go next.”

He said Wolverine is talking with the DEQ about whether to expand the testing area.

He repeatedly refused to discuss whether Wolverine should have known as long ago as 2002 that a likely carcigonen was in the dump. 3M had discontinued using PFOS in Scotchgard in 2002. The EPA in 2005 labeled it a possible carcinogen.

“As we sit here today and as we think about where we’re going forward and that is really what we are focused on right now, what do we do next, it’s finding a resolution to the current situation,” he said.

He said doesn’t know how barrels and scrap leather showed up in ravines along House Street, which Target 8 revealed last month. On Thursday, crews started cleaning one of those sites.

“At the end of the day, it came from us, regardless of who took it there, and we just found out about it, and we’re cleaning it up,” he said.

That includes the mounds of leather reported earlier this week on Ramsdell Drive NE near East Rockford Middle School. Wolverine said it immediately tested the water.

“That water sample was on an airplane last night and we’re expediting the results of that water sample,” Hufnagel said.

The same day, Wolverine offered to install whole-house filtration systems for all 338 homes tested around the House Street dump.

Wolverine Worldwide, House Street, buffer zone
Map: The “buffer zone” around a long-defunct Wolverine Worldwide dump believed to be causing well water contamination.

“This is going to take longer to resolve than anyone would want,” Hufnagel said. “Longer than the residents want, longer than we want. We want answers, and we want to know exactly what’s going on, so we can find a resolution.”

The filters cost about $5,000 each — a total of  $1.69 million if installed at all 338 homes.

“It is a lot of money, but honestly we’re not focused on the dollars right now,” Hufnagel said. “Our primary concern from the very beginning when we found out there was an issue was allowing our residents to have confidence in their water.”

He said it’s not about the fear of lawsuits.

“By the end of the day, we want to do the right thing,” Hufnagel said. “We’ve been in this community for over 100 years and we want to be here for 100 more.”

Hufnagel said Wolverine hasn’t determined whether to pay for extending city water to the House Street area.