Former tannery manager questions Wolverine’s timeline

Former manager of a Wolverine Worldwide tannery Bob Winegar talks about the company's decisions.

ROCKFORD, Mich. (WOOD) — The man who ran the Wolverine Worldwide tannery during the years it was dumping waste in Belmont said the company believed it was doing the right thing at the time.

But, he questions why Wolverine didn’t go public in 1999 when it learned in a letter from 3M that the Scotchgard in the sludge it was dumping was potentially hazardous.

“There is a responsibility there to do something I would think,” said Bob Winegar, of Rockford, who ran the tannery from 1962 to 1969. “I can’t tell you what I would have done, but being president of the company, you had the responsibility of doing something.”

That includes, he said, notifying the public.

“Maybe we should tell everybody and tell the whole story. That’s usually the best approach,” Winegar said.

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Instead, a Rockford citizens group first raised the possibility of contamination at Wolverine’s former House Street dump earlier this year. Since then, tests have found high levels of PFAS, the chemical once in Scotchgard, in neighboring wells as far as two miles away.

Until recently, Wolverine has said it didn’t know that Scotchgard was made with PFAS, a chemical now considered a likely carcinogen.

But in November, Target 8 revealed that 3M had sent Wolverine a letter about the potential hazards of the PFAS in the Scotchgard in 1999. That letter was sent to a Wolverine vice president after a meeting between 3M and Wolverine.

Winegar said he was surprised to learn about the letter.

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But he said both 3M and Plainfield Township are also to blame.

“Sometime in the last 15 years I got a call from the township wanting to know if I knew there was a dump out there,” Winegar said. “I says yes, I did know there was a dump out there.”

He said Scotchgard wasn’t discussed with the township because he knew nothing about its potential dangers. Since then, entire neighborhoods have been built near the dump.

“They continued to issue building permits,” Winegar said. “Now I don’t think they’re entirely off the hook either.”

Winegar said Scotchgard was a key ingredient in turning pigskin into quality shoes.

“I can guarantee you that Hush Puppies would not have been anywhere near the success it was without Scotchgard,” Winegar said.

But when he worked there, he said, Scotchgard was not a health concern.

“It was never brought up. I never even thought about it until this recently we started hearing about it.”

Winegar said Wolverine knew that the sludge contained Scotchgard.

“There should have been enough people there to recall that that was a thing we did back then,” he said.

Winegar said all liquid waste from the tannery went into a pair of huge settling tanks along the Rogue River. The sludge that settled out was trucked out to the House Street dump, which closed in 1970, the year after he left Wolverine.

He said he wasn’t aware of any other dumps at the time he worked there. He said he also didn’t know how scraps of treated hides and barrels ended up in some ravines in the area. He suspects the hides came from the shoe factory next to the tannery.

Winegar said Wolverine worked closely with the state Department of Natural Resources in the 1960s to dispose of waste.

“We were doing what they considered at the state level to be as good as you could, and we were constantly being held up as a company that was responsible, trying to do what was right,” he said.

Winegar said he still has a soft spot for Wolverine. He proudly shows off the company’s display at the Rockford Museum, where he volunteers.

“The company has always tried to do what was morally right,” he said. “This might have been a big mistake.”

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: