‘Prophetic’ dump complaint nearly 60 years ago

Waste House Street NE dump now blamed for contaminating wells in Belmont

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) — Belmont neighbors fearing contamination of their wells complained about Wolverine Worldwide’s House Street NE landfill nearly 60 years ago, but the company continued dumping sludge there, a former Kent County health official told Target 8.

Now, the long-closed dump is the center of a growing plume of contamination that has spread a likely carcinogen into wells more than a mile away.

“If he was alive, he’d say, ‘I told you so back in 1959.’ That’s what he would have said: ‘I told you this would happen,'” the former health official said of the neighbor who filed that complaint.

Interviews with former Wolverine Worldwide employees and the health official who said he investigated the company’s former dump in 1959 or 1960 are raising serious questions: What did Wolverine know about the chemicals it was dumping and when?

As the chief sanitarian for the Kent County Health Department, Robert Aman vividly remembers the first complaint.

“He (the neighbor) was just livid. They were just furious over what Wolverine was doing,” said Aman, now 87.

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

‘EXTREMELY PROPHETIC’

Back then, Wolverine had just started dumping on the north side of House Street in Plainfield Township. It was long before US-131 was built.

“It was really rural, very rural,” Aman said of the area at the time.

The few neighbors wanted it to stop.

“They were complaining because of what it might do to the water supply,” Aman said. “That’s what they were concerned about back then. I know that’s what they were concerned about, no question about that.”

They were also worried about their property values, he said.

“Extremely prophetic, extremely so,” he said.

He said he inspected Wolverine’s disposal system behind the Rockford tannery and how they separated sludge from waste water.

“Then I followed the truck to House Street. I drove in there with the truck and followed him, and I noticed at that point there were at least two trenches,” Aman said.

He said they were deep trenches, at least 100 feet long, one of them filling with sludge.

“As I remember, there was nothing we could do about it at that time,” he said. “There were no laws.

“Back in those days, what was good for Wolverine was good for Rockford and was good for the community and just maybe they had a free rein to do what they wished to do.

“I was just as frustrated as the people were with what they were doing there.”

Aman said he inspected dumps all over Kent County back then, but House Street was the only Wolverine dump he knew of.

“Almost every township had a place where they dumped, right off the side of the road,” Aman said.

He said he didn’t know about some of the other recently discovered Wolverine sites — the illegal dumps in ravines near the House Street dump, or the dump on Ramsdell Drive NE that recently led East Rockford Middle School to stop using its well water.

SCOTCHGARD KEY TO MAKING HUSH PUPPIES

Aman said nobody back then had heard of PFOS — the chemical used in Scotchgard at the time that is now polluting wells around the House Street site, raising fears of cancer and other illnesses.

Aman said he wasn’t surprised when he learned neighboring wells were contaminated.

“As soon as I found out about it, that the wells were contaminated, it makes sense. It just makes sense. I was thinking they’re dumping that stuff in there, and I didn’t know what was in there, left over from the leather processing into this dump,” Aman said.

But a former Wolverine worker told Target 8 he knew exactly what was in there.

“It was just green crap,” retired Wolverine worker George Burg said.

Burg said he worked at Wolverine from 1949 to 1994, many of those years in the color mill and in the lab.

3M’s Scotchgard was a key component in turning pigskin into Hush Puppies since 1958.

“We’d use about four 55-gallon barrels in a day, a 24-hour thing,” Burg said.

Scotchgard was the final step in the tannery’s color mills — huge drums that resembled washing machines — where pigskin was dyed and then softened.

“It come in barrels and we weighed it out in pails and dumped it in these tanks, and these tanks had pumps on it, and you’d pump it into each mill by hooking hoses up in different places,” Burg explained.

Back then, he said, nobody knew Scotchgard was dangerous.

He said all the waste from the process went together to the same place: “Over to the disposal plant.”

Wolverine’s disposal plant was behind the tannery, next to the Rogue River, he said. And that, he said, is where the House Street dump sludge came from.

He said Wolverine never informed him that the chemical in Scotchgard was later deemed to be potentially dangerous.

“They didn’t tell you nothing,” he said.

CLOSED BUT NOT FORGOTTEN

The House Street dump closed in about 1970, but that doesn’t mean Wolverine forgot about it.

As part of Wolverine’s grounds crew, Don Hess regularly checked on the abandoned House Street site from 1990 to 2007.

“Check the fences, make sure nobody got inside there,” Hess said.

He remembers, “just leather, straps of leather and barrels, that’s about it,” he said.

He said he knew nothing about the sludge dumped there 20 years earlier.

“There was a lot of leather there, and like I said, that leather was all tanned, and it means it has all the chemicals on it. They’ve got to get rid of it somewhere,” Hess said.

Wolverine has refused to say whether it knew in 2002 that its long-closed House Street dump contained PFOS and was a potential hazard. It has said it knew nothing about that until a Rockford citizens group brought it up earlier this year.

In 2002, 3M stopped using PFOS in Scotchgard over growing health concerns. Three years later, the Environmental Protection Agency called it a possible carcinogen.

“They had to know,” said Aman, the retired chief sanitarian. “They had to know what their own processes were, what their own chemicals were. How could they operate if they didn’t know?”

On Tuesday, Wolverine released a statement in response to Target 8’s investigation: “We don’t have any record of this claim from nearly 60 years ago. We will include this as a part of our internal review.”

RESOURCES FOR BELMONT RESIDENTS

If you are eligible for a whole-house water filtration system from Wolverine Worldwide, you can call 616.866.5627 or email HouseStreet@wwwinc.com.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Environmental Assistance Center can be reached at 1.800.662.9278.

Websites with additional information on the contamination: