Wolverine in crosshairs over PFAS at town hall meeting

A town hall style meeting was held at Rockford Freshman Center on the Wolverine Worldwide PFAS contamination.

ROCKFORD, Mich. (WOOD) — Some of the questions raised Wednesday at a PFAS town hall meeting were aimed directly at Wolverine Worldwide, the source of a growing contamination crisis.

They were about transparency.

Two of the many speakers at the meeting at the Rockford Freshman Center accused Wolverine of misleading the public when it said it learned only recently that Scotchgard, which it used to treat shoes, once was made with PFAS.

“If you want to be open and transparent, why does it take WOOD TV8 to find the 3M letter that points out you weren’t telling the truth at the last meeting?” Rockford activist Lynn McIntosh asked Wolverine Vice President Chris Hufnagel.

Target 8 revealed that 3M wrote to Wolverine in 1999 to warn about PFAS’s potential hazards, just before discontinuing it. By mid-2005, the EPA was calling it a possible carcinogen.

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

Wolverine dumped sludge containing PFAS at its House Street dump in Belmont until 1970s, as well as other sites. Some residential wells are now testing with high levels of the likely carcinogen.

“That does not build confidence,” said McIntosh, part of a citizens group that first exposed the contamination. “Anything you say tonight means nothing to me.”

Hunger did not respond directly to the 3M letter.

“You talk about the respect you’ve lost for Wolverine and we take that seriously,” he said to another resident who questioned why the company didn’t take action years ago after the 3M letter. “We want to rebuild the trust that has been lost through this process.”

The Wolverine vice president was on a panel with state and local officials at the three-hour town hall meeting, organized by the Kent County Health Department, that drew hundreds. Many lined up to ask questions.

Among the panelists was Carol Isaacs, leader of the recently formed Michigan PFAS Action Response Team.

“My biggest goal for you tonight is that I want to ease your fears,” local DEQ supervisor Abigail Hendershott told the crowd.

Among the fears: Contamination spreading from the House Street dump in Belmont, where this all started. It has spread more than two miles into 210 wells — 30 of those over the EPA’s advisory limit of 70 parts per trillion.

Residents also raised questions about Plainfield Township’s municipal water, which has trace levels of PFAS, and about the former Rockford tannery site, which has a staggering PFAS level of 490,000 ppt, which is leaching into the Rogue River.

Some worry about well water with even low levels of PFAS.

“If I lived in the state of New Jersey with a level of 14 (ppt), my drinking water would be considered unsafe,” said Danielle Galloway, of Algoma Township. She’s among a group of residents who tested their own wells in the Russell Ridge neighborhood near 14 Mile Road and Northland Drive. Tests showed PFAS levels of 12 to 17 ppt.

“Why is it considered safe in my home state?” Galloway asked.

Several states have set new lower limits for PFAS. New Jersey is moving toward a level of 14 ppt.

Michigan Department of Health and Human Services toxicologist Kory Groetsch said he trusts the EPA’s advisory level of 70 parts per trillion. However, he recommends residents not drink well water with any PFAS if they live next to a known dump. That, he said, is because of the unknowns. The levels could fluctuate.

“How do you feel about risk?,” Groetsch said. “How do you feel about chance? We take lots of risk in life. This one nobody wants to take because you didn’t choose it.”

Drinking Plainfield Township’s municipal water, state officials said, is safe because they test the levels every three months, and the levels remain fairly steady. Tests in 2016 showed 10.5 parts per trillion.

Residents said they are worried about property values.

“We’re focused on health first,” Hufnagel, the Wolverine vice president, responded. “We know we have to look at other issues down the line.”

“We are trying to do the right thing,” Hufnagel said. The company expects to spend more than $3 million this year on its response, including tests and cleanup of dump sites. So far, Wolverine has installed 161 whole-house filters at home near the House Street dump.

“Where there is an issue, we want to eliminate any risk to human health that exists,” he said.

Residents also questioned why Wolverine didn’t have its own list of dump sites. State officials say laws back then didn’t require companies to keep track of where it dumped. Hufnagel, the Wolverine vice president, said he’s also frustrated that he doesn’t know.

 >>App users: Interactive map of toxic tap water

So far, the state has checked 88 possible sites and turned over 20 of those locations to Wolverine for more investigation. Most are around the House Street dump, near Wolven Avenue and 10 Mile Road NE and in the area of Jewell Avenue and 10 Mile.

The Kent County Health Department also said it expects to start a health survey early next year to determine if PFAS has led to pockets of illnesses in areas of contamination. They are asking the CDC to review the survey.

“We want to get this right,” Health Department Medical Director Mark Hall said.

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: