A class action lawsuit that has enlisted the support of environmental activist Erin Brockovich has been filed against a western Michigan shoe manufacturer and two other companies for contaminating well water for perhaps decades through dump sites in now-heavily populated areas.
The federal lawsuit filed Friday in Grand Rapids but announced Tuesday, is being handled by three law firms – two with ties to Detroit and Michigan. The firms are The Miller Law Firm, Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd and Weitz & Luxenberg.
The lawsuit also named 3M Corporation, which produced the Scotchgard for Wolverine Worldwide to waterproof the leather in its shoes, and Waste Management Inc., because it operates a landfill where some of the contaminated material was dumped.
Residents have been reeling for months after Rockford-based Wolverine Worldwide revealed that chemicals from the production of popular products like Hush Puppies, Stride Rite and Merrell shoes had leached into the area’s many wells. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, which has been working with Wolverine to discover the sites, was not named in the lawsuit.
Lawyers plan a meeting next week in the area to brief residents on the lawsuit and Brockovich, who is working with the legal team, is expected to be on hand. Brockovich’s case against Pacific Gas & Electric Company gained worldwide attention, including the film “Erin Brockovich,” starring Julia Roberts.
In an interview with The Detroit News, Brockovich said she’s received hundreds of emails from people in the Rockford community since October, asking for advice about their health problems and looking for someone to trust.
“What saddens me is the breach of trust that these people feel,” Brockovich said. “It’s a kick in the gut to go buy a house, you are on well water, you have faith or trust in the system or the developer or a company upstream that they are doing the right thing.”
Brockovich said the questions are many, including, “Do they stop drinking water? How long have the kids been exposed?”
“They are searching for a lot of answers. We hope that the community meeting can begin to answer some of those questions for them,” she said. “This is not a short process. This contaminant did not just happen yesterday. This is obviously a very big issue.”
Brockovich said from the “hundreds of emails I’ve already read, there are sick families out there. They think they are dealing with their financial struggles and daily battles because they have cancer.”
Saying “silence on both the environment and human health have been catastrophic,” the suit identifies at least 75 suspected disposal sites in Kent County “that are creating contamination in the affected communities and threatening water supplies, air quality and human health.”
“Wolverine and 3M knew about the contamination and toxicity for years, yet failed to disclose this dangerous problem to the communities and oversight authorities and worse, failed to do anything to stop the dangerous condition from causing injury to individuals and the environment,” the lawsuit states. “Instead, Wolverine and 3M sat silently by as new plumes of toxic chemicals developed, contaminating aquifers beneath private wells and municipal water supplies.”
A spokesman for Wolverine Worldwide, which is based in Rockford, said in a statement that “Wolverine does not comment on ongoing or potential litigation.”
In a statement, an attorney for 3M disputed the lawsuit’s claims.
“Under Michigan law, we believe 3M has no liability for any damages allegedly caused by Wolverine’s manufacturing and waste disposal practices,” said William A. Brewer III. “3M never manufactured or disposed of PFC-containing materials in Michigan. We believe this lawsuit lacks merit.”
But Sharon Almonrode, the chair of the class action department of The Miller Law Firm, said she expects to lawsuit to represent thousands of homeowners whose property values have plummeted in areas like Plainfield Township and Rockford near Grand Rapids.
“These people are worried, they’re worried about the uncertainty of where there is contamination,” Almonrode said. “They are worried about their health, the health of their children. They don’t know how these toxic chemicals have impacted their health. They don’t know if there’s been migration of these chemicals to different locations. The community is very distressed and reasonably so.”
Some wells on homeowners’ property have been testing positive for polyfluoroalkyl substances known as PFAS, which are also referred to as perfluorinated compounds, or PFCs. These chemicals were present in Scotchgard repellent, which Wolverine officials used to seal its Hush Puppies shoe line from the 1950s to the 1970s at its long-closed Rockford tannery.
These kinds of toxins, in high concentrations, can result in low birth weight, the delayed onset of puberty, elevated cholesterol levels and reduced bodily immune defense reactions to vaccinations, according to the EPA.
Almonrode said that these law firms expect a legal fight ahead. “When you take on these billion-dollar corporations, we wanted to bring together the most powerful team that we could,” she said.