ROCKFORD, Mich. (WOOD) — The Rogue River through Rockford is known for fishing; it’s a Blue Ribbon trout stream.
But now Wolverine Worldwide has announced that a likely carcinogen from the Scotchgard it once used at its former tannery has contaminated a long stretch of the river.
“It’s not just a sport. Fishing is a way of life,” said Chris Herman, owner of River Bound Fly Fishing Outfitters in Rockford as he tied a steelhead fly.
On the river just south of the dam, Wyatt Benton cast a line Friday for whatever he could catch.
“Usually steelhead, trout and salmon when they’re running,” said Benton, who drove to the river from Hastings.
But up and down this river, from the popular trout spot at 12 Mile Road NE, to below the dam where fly fishers gather, to where the Rogue empties into the Grand, the fish swim in diluted PFAS.
“Whether it’s fly fishing, or regular fishing or kayakers, anything that has to do with this water, with the contamination, it’s personal,” Herman said. “For Rockford, it’s the main attraction for visitors.”
Wolverine Worldwide reported Thursday that tests found extremely high levels of PFAS from Scotchgard where the tannery once stood just north of the dam: 490,000 parts per trillion.
It’s where Wolverine Wolverine used Scotchgard to waterproof shoes for years.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s advisory limit for drinking is 70. The tests found up to 12,400 parts per trillion in river bottom sediment.
The tests also revealed PFAS at lower levels in surface water at five spots north and south on the Rogue River; the highest was where the Rogue River empties into the Grand River.
“It’s frustrating. It’s sad,” Benton said as he waited for a bite. “Unfortunately, it happens a lot all over the place, not just here.”
A 2013 advisory from the state warned against eating suckers from the river after evidence of PFAS was found. The state also issued an advisory for bass because of mercury contamination.
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality said on Friday that even before the Wolverine Worldwide report came out, it was working with the state health department on a new fish study for the Rogue River, along with other sites in Michigan.
“This is a proactive move to ensure that we are protecting public health,” DEQ spokeswoman Melanie Brown said.
Those who love to fish the Rogue River said PFAS is another reason to catch and release. However the chemical won’t keep them from the river.
“Anything that has spent years in this river is just not edible,” Herman said.
Like trout, bass and pike.
“I wouldn’t eat it,” he said.
“It’s supposed to be a Blue Ribbon trout stream,” Herman said. “How can it be Blue Ribbon when there’s contamination?”
But salmon and steelhead?
“They’re in here for a short period of time. You can eat them,” Herman added.
Rick Rediske, an expert in environmental toxicology and chemistry with the Annis Water Resources Institute at Grand Valley State University, said the PFAS levels at the tannery were the highest levels he’s seen to date.
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He said he’d be mostly concerned about PFAS levels in the river’s “resident” fish, like trout and bass, but not migratory fish, like steelhead and salmon.
“Migratory fish from Lake Michigan have advisories for other chemicals that are not related to the tannery,” Rediske said.
Benton hadn’t heard about the latest contamination, but that didn’t stop him on Friday.
“No, no, I’ll still come up here and fish,” he said.
Both fishermen said there’s a fix, but it will take time.
“It’s something that’s got to change higher up in the chain,” Wyatt said.
It should start, they said, with Wolverine Worldwide’s tannery site.
“They’ll have to clean it up, then let nature do its thing,” Herman said from his fly fishing shop. “It always does.”
Wolverine Worldwide’s experts say the contamination is not a danger to the public because the Rogue River is not a source of drinking water, and not a health risk to people, like kayakers, who have contact with the water.
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: