Lansing — Michigan regulators are suing Wolverine World Wide Inc. in federal court in a bid to force it into providing long-term relief for residents and others whose wells were contaminated by the company’s leather tanning plant.
The state Department of Environmental Quality filed the lawsuit in Grand Rapids federal court on Wednesday, hoping to set deadlines for Wolverine World Wide to clean up chemicals dumped near its plant in the Grand Rapids area and protect the public health.
The legal action comes after the state enacted a new action level of 70 parts per trillion on Tuesday for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS.
Michigan’s threshold mirrors the guidelines from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and were necessary to hold companies liable for contamination, according to Gov. Rick Snyder’s office.
The company has been “responsive” to the problem, according to the DEQ, but the court filing is necessary to codify time lines and expectations for Wolverine’s cleanup.
“The state of Michigan is committed to holding responsible parties accountable. We have filed this action today because we want to ensure that immediate and long-term solutions are confirmed by the courts,” said DEQ Director Heidi Grether in a statement. “This action will be helpful in providing a clearly defined path forward to implement permanent solutions for the community.
“Our new state clean-up standard now gives us the ability to take additional legal actions such as this, which provides the state with more options to ensure long-term compliance plans are in place and enforced.”
On Wednesday, the EPA also ordered Wolverine to conduct more tests for a potential cleanup effort at its former tannery at the House Street landfill in Rockford. The order requires testing for harmful substances such as PFAS, arsenic, chromium, mercury and ammonia.
The EPA has classified PFAS as an “emerging contaminant” nationally, although the chemicals are the result of legacy pollution resulting from industrial, food and textile industries. PFAS have been used to make products such as firefighting foams, food packaging and cleaning product during the past 50 years and can easily contaminate groundwater and surface water, according to the DEQ.
At least 14 Michigan communities have sites known to have some level of PFAS in the ground or drinking water supplies, according to the state. Problem areas include locations in Ann Arbor, the Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda and the former Wolverine World Wide tannery and company dump sites in Rockford, Belmont and Plainfield Township.
One Plainfield Township home had a well that tested at 10,000 parts per trillion of perfluroalkyl substances — far over the federal guideline.
Michigan’s new threshold comes after Snyder signed a supplemental spending bill in December allocating $23.2 million in state money toward cleaning up groundwater contamination from PFAS at 28 sites in the 14 communities.
Exposure to high levels of the chemicals have been shown to hurt humans and animals in lab tests, producing low infant birth weights and affecting immune systems. Animal testing data also suggests a link between PFAS and cancer, according to the EPA.
James Clift, policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council, said the state is covering its bases.
“Until now Wolverine has basically been doing everything the state has asked of them,” he said. “But the state is spending substantial funds, and at some point the state will be asked to be reimbursed for those.”
Wolverine World Wide said in a statement it is committed to working with the DEQ and EPA.
“We have been working collaboratively with the MDEQ and EPA to address their concerns and implement solutions to give the community confidence in its water,” said Chris Hufnagel, Wolverine’s senior vice president and head of strategy.
The legal action formalizes “the work and testing already being done by Wolverine,” said Hufnagel, who added that “this is our hometown, and these are our friends, families and neighbors. We are committed to doing the right thing and seeing this through to the end.”
Wolverine officials say they have tested for PFAS in more than 1,000 homes and paid for all of those tests. The company also supplied bottled water to residents awaiting test results and paid for more than 400 house filtration systems.