Kent County residents sue firm over contaminated water

Candice Williams
The Detroit News

A group of Kent County residents have filed a lawsuit against a Rockford-based shoe manufacturer alleging that the company’s leather tanning plant contaminated wells and drinking water.

The class-action lawsuit, Johns, et al. v. Wolverine World Wide Inc., was filed March 6 in Kent County Circuit Court. It alleges that toxic chemicals known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, migrated from Wolverine World Wide’s dump sites into residents’ water supplies. Potential hazards of exposure include cancer, thyroid problems and other diseases.

“Our clients have lost the ability to enjoy their homes and live with daily reminders that they and their families have been consuming water laced with toxic chemicals,” plaintiff attorney Esther Berezofsky of the Berezofsky Law Group said in a statement Wednesday.

The lawsuit also alleges Kent County residents have suffered reduced property values because of the contamination.

According to the lawsuit, the plaintiffs have asked a judge to order the company to fully remediate their homes, provide ongoing testing of the water supply as well as “biomedical surveillance program for Plaintffs and Class Members with PFAS present in their blood, for the early daignosis and treatment for the cancers, diseases and disorders caused by PFAS exposure.” The program would include physical examinations, urine tests and scans.

“We believe Wolverine’s self-serving conduct has adversely impacted our clients’ lives by putting at risk their health, well-being and property” said plaintiff attorney Edward Wallace, a partner at Wexler Wallace.

Wolverine World Wide said Wednesday there have been ongoing efforts taken to address the local groundwater issues.

Wolverine World Wide’s former tannery operations closed in 2009. During the past year it has worked with local, state and federal agencies to test for perfluorooctane sulfonate and perfluorooctanoic acid from its use of 3M’s Scotchgard.

“From the beginning, Wolverine has said it is committed to working with local, state and federal regulators to develop long-term water solutions for our community and we will continue to do so,” officials said in a statement. “While we intend to remain a good partner and corporate citizen and address issues facing our community, we will simultaneously protect and vigorously defend our company against ongoing litigation.”

Most of the complainants in the class-action lawsuit are from Algoma and Plainfield townships, said Robert Sickels of Sommers Schwartz, representing the plaintiffs. According to Wolverine World Wide, the company has conducted 1,500 groundwater tests.

Last month, Wolverine World Wide announced it expected to commit $40 million toward its efforts to address “groundwater issues potentially connected to its legacy tannery operations.”

The legal action follows a lawsuit the state Department of Environmental Quality filed in Grand Rapids in January in hopes to set deadlines for Wolverine World Wide to clean up chemicals dumped near its plant in the Grand Rapids area. That lawsuit came after the state enacted a new action level of 70 parts per trillion for PFAS.

The MDEQ has said previously that Wolverine World Wide has been “responsive” to the problem.

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