Wolverine tannery cleanup order: What took so long?

Groundwater monitoring wells line Wolverine Worldwide’s former tannery site near the Rogue River in Rockford. (Jan. 19, 2018)


ROCKFORD, Mich. (WOOD) — A new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency order forcing Wolverine Worldwide to clean up its highly polluted former tannery site is based on tests that found mercury, arsenic, lead and other potentially deadly chemicals there at least six years ago.

It begs the question: What took the government so long to take action?

The EPA’s new order gives Wolverine 60 days to come up with a cleanup plan for the tannery site, saying some of the chemicals, including arsenic and ammonia, pose an imminent threat to kids swimming in the nearby Rogue River and people using the White Pine Trail.

>>PDF: Cleanup order from EPA

That was before anybody even considered PFAS, the likely carcinogen recently found at extremely high levels at the former tannery and other sites, including Wolverine’s former House Street dump.

“What’s taking so long is our (state) statute allows a responsible party to move forward and diligently pursue their response activities,” said David O’Donnell of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, who oversaw the state’s investigation to Wolverine. “I’m not going to dictate the pace; that’s not within the scope of my authority.”

It was a Rockford citizens group that asked the EPA to investigate the tannery site in 2011.

The DEQ found the area could have qualified as a Superfund site, forcing a quicker cleanup. Instead, the DEQ took over the case for the EPA.

As the former district supervisor for the DEQ in Grand Rapids, O’Donnell knows as much about the Wolverine case as anybody in the state.

Target 8 asked him if he was satisfied that Wolverine “diligently pursued” a cleanup.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been satisified on any of the sites I’ve worked on. I always wish somebody could do stuff faster,” he said.

“‘Diligently pursue’ has never been tested in court, so there isn’t a standard for it,” O’Donnell added.

O’Donnell said Wolverine has conducted tests at the old tannery, which closed in 2009. However, he said they’ve done nothing to get rid of the arsenic, chromium, mercury or other hazardous substances found there.

O’Donnell said the state could have forced quicker action by suing Wolverine back in 2012 because the chemical levels violated state limits, but chose not to.

“The question is, were the levels high enough to warrant the direction of resources to doing that? But in my judgment, since I was the district supervisor, there were other things that I wanted my resources to be doing,” he said.

O’Donnell said that while the site posed an imminent threat back before PFAS was discovered, the threat wasn’t “acute.”

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

“If there had been an acute risk, something that would have harmed people immediately, that would have been a different scenario. But it’s not. We’re looking at chronic risks with the arsenic and ammonia over a long period of time,” he explained.

While Rockford residents are on city water, the EPA noted that homes downriver have well water.

He said it was the relative recent discover of PFAS that forced the EPA’s cleanup order.

“I think with the advent of having the PFAS, we understand that it’s a much bigger problem than what we were seeing in 2011 and 2012,” he said.

The state has filed a lawsuit against Wolverine over widespread PFAS contamination since the EPA has no legal limit over PFAS and no authority.

In addition to the 60-day cleanup plan order, the EPA also demanded the company set aside $5 million for the work and threatened civil fines of as much as $54,000 a day if Wolverine violates the order.