Toxic past surfaces in west Michigan

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Plainfield Township — As a crisp breeze flapped the American flag overhead, Scott Ingraham stood in his driveway and reminisced about his slice of heaven — a 61/2-acre dream property lined with apple blossom trees, woods with trails and pristine drinking water from his well.

Crews work on a contaminated site near House Street in Plainfield Township.

Then anger and resentment swept over him like the toxins that seeped — perhaps for decades — into his well water, making it one of the most contaminated in the Grand Rapids area. The pollution came from a longtime shoe manufacturer’s waste dumping site a few miles north of his homestead.

“This is ... or was paradise and then they stripped that away from us,” said Ingraham, 45, with his wife, Lisa, 43, of his home on Chandler Drive near Herrington Avenue NE. “If you walk around our backyard, especially in the fall, the trees are beautiful. ...We have a million-dollar view.

“This hurt, honestly. I can’t get good water out of my own tap. ... That affects you greatly.”

Scott Ingraham’s well shows high levels of potentially dangerous chemicals.

Ingraham’s well registered 10,000 parts per trillion of perfluroalkyl substances — man-made chemicals that if ingested could lead, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to increased cholesterol levels, low infant birth weights, damaged immune systems and an increased risk of cancer.

Testing that detects any toxic chemicals over 75 parts per trillion is a concern, according to the EPA’s guideline.

“This is bad stuff,” Ingraham said.

Residents here have been reeling for months after Rockford-based Wolverine Worldwide revealed that chemicals from making popular products like Hush Puppies, Stride Rite and Merrell shoes had leached into the area’s many wells. The number of dumping sites range from 40-45 and counting, state officials say.

State officials say water in 22 homes has tested over the EPA’s 75 parts per trillion standard but did not have a specific number of homes where chemicals were detected.

Homeowners have begun swapping stories about having their water tested and even checked their wooded backyards for possible dump sites. Some have found old rusted barrels with sludge and leather straps among other debris legally deposited at the time along undeveloped farmland.

Wolverine officials have cooperated with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to help find potential dump sites and study the water. They also reached out to affected residents to get them bottled water and filters, and picked up the tab for testing water of those who live near dump sites.

“There are a lot of questions about the potential health impacts,” said Chris Hufnagel, senior vice president of strategy for Wolverine in Rockford. “We understand and appreciate the anxiety that’s in the community right now. ... We care deeply about this.

“We go to football games together, we go to schools together, our kids play on teams together. We are woven into the fabric of Rockford and Grand Rapids. We’ve been here for over 100 years.”

Wolverine officials won’t comment on the possibility of lawsuits, though residents say a Grand Rapids law firm has been meeting with residents in affected areas for weeks.

“The entire organization (is) focused on the situation at hand, getting answers to the questions that we have and then really working diligently to get residents’ confidence in their drinking water,” Hufnagel said.

Tests reveal chemicals

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.

The investigation into potential dump sites continues, said Kathleen Shirey, acting director of Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s remediation and development division that is overseeing the Wolverine issue. Staff will be poring over historical land use records and aerial photographs, “anything that might give us a feel for the land use,” Shirey said.

“Prior to 1978, there were really no state regulations of dump sites. It was not necessary to have a permit, for example, to send your waste to the local gravel pit,” she said, adding that the waste was not tracked.

“Our practices today are certainly different. The state of knowledge has changed a great deal over the years, and we simply had no idea (the materials) were a problem back then, so I wouldn’t want to judge people’s actions in the past.”

The state is holding Wolverine accountable by “making sure they are doing what they need to do,” Shirey said. “... We are fully committed to making sure that everything brought to our attention is investigated and that we can assure that we have public health protected.”

State officials say they have learned from the Flint lead-contaminated water crisis, first acknowledged in October 2015, and are being proactive and engaged with the community and Wolverine every step of the way.

Mom fearful of effects

One of the most affected areas in Plainfield is in the 1800 block of House Street NE. Houses were built where Wolverine used to dispose of industrial waste going back to the late 1930s.

Beatriz Ryfiak, 27, lives a few houses from the dumping ground. The water is contaminated with toxins, enough to make their test results the third-highest in the neighborhood, Ryfiak said.

“And every time they’ve checked it since, it keeps getting higher and higher,” she said.

Ryfiak is worried about the health of her three children, ages 3, 5 and 11, especially the youngest. He has been drinking the well water “all his life,” she said.

“What’s going to happen further down the road in terms of his health risks?” Ryfiak said. “It’s scary. You don’t want to mess with someone’s child.”

Ryfiak said she and her husband discovered Wolverine debris, such as leather straps and rusted barrels with sludge, in the trenches in their backyard. A tour last week in back of the home revealed such materials jutting out of the ground.

“Once all the information about dump sites came out, he asked: What if we have stuff in our yard?” Ryfiak said. “He started digging and searching and sure enough ... found stuff.”

The Kent County Health Department, in conjunction with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, is conducting a cancer cluster study and a health survey in the House Street area as well as other places with old dumps.

The agency is studying whether there has been an increase in certain cancers, especially those relating to the urinary and genital organs, said Steve Kelso, communications director for the Kent County Health Department. It has contacted area doctors to see if their patients are experiencing medical problems, he said.

“Yes, there are people who have been diagnosed with cancer in these census tracts. Can we prove it has anything to do with what’s in their well water or ... with Wolverine Worldwide?” Kelso said. “We really can’t right now. That’s what the information is going to be used for.”

Concerns about cancer

Jill Davis, 35, who lives adjacent to the Wolverine headquarters in Rockford, said she and her husband had not had their well tested but are now considering it since a dump site was possibly found near her home.

“I guess you get a little worried, especially that we have kids,” Davis said. “It’s not something you would normally test your well for.”

Frank Amendola, 55, lives in Rockford as well, not far from another dump site. At some point soon he planned to test his water for toxins.

If the test turns out positive, Amendola said, there will be “disappointment.” He wonders about the lack of governmental oversight of the factory’s environmental risks.

“This is now years after the fact,” he said. “So you expect that these people are licensed, they are regulated. You expect these things to be done. And, obviously, it wasn’t.”

The Ingrahams are pushing forward. The family received two $50 gift cards from Wolverine to go buy water. The company also gave them a water filter that won’t work given the high level of toxins in the water.

“It’s a little bit of anger and depression and anxiety,” Ingraham said of the mood in his community. “We are at least in this together.”

As for being worried about developing cancer, Ingraham said, “How can you not be?”

His wife went to the doctor a week ago and had blood work done. “It’s really kind of scary to think that we’ve been exposed to this for 10 years,” Lisa Ingraham said. “So I took the proactive approach and I went to my doctor to get blood work done.”

Her husband said he doesn’t blame current Wolverine officials. And he doesn’t see this situation turning into Flint.

“I think Flint was more of a failure of government,” Ingraham said. “This was at the time, that was legal. (But) it doesn’t make it right.”

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Twitter: @leonardnfleming