State, EPA examine risk after report of toxic chemicals at former Michigan tannery

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Workers from Youngs Environmental Cleanup work on the Tannery Waste Landfill on House Street in 2017. House Street is one of many sites where toxic chemicals believed to be from Wolverine World Wide operations have been detected.

State and federal officials spent more than an hour Tuesday detailing efforts to identify and address potential chemical contamination left in the wake of a former tannery and dump sites in Kent County.

The public meeting at the Rockford High School Fine Arts Auditorium addressed ongoing studies of per- and polyfluoroalkyl contamination in and near Rockford, including a January 2019 report to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on the former site of Wolverine Worldwide’s Rockford tannery.

A result of months of testing in 2018, the report included results from thousands of samples taken from borings and wells throughout the tannery property, indicating high levels of not only PFAS, but also heavy-metal contaminants believed to stem from the tannery’s decades of operation.  

“We don’t have that level of contamination that’s an emergency at or near the surface,” EPA on-scene coordinator Jeff Kimble told residents Tuesday. “We have looked at whether there’s an immediate risk. We’re now looking at ‘OK, what’s the risk for the next year?’”

The meeting, which was livestreamed, occurred the same day Gov. Gretchen Whitmer directed the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to begin developing drinking water standards for PFAS instead of waiting on federal guidelines.

The "forever chemicals" known as PFAS are difficult to break down and were popularly used to create non-stick surfaces for products such as Scotchgard, Teflon and food wrappers, and firefighting foam. They have been associated with health risks such as thyroid disease, increased cholesterol levels, and kidney and testicular cancers.

The Wolverine Worldwide tannery in Rockford operated from the 1890s to 2009 and used PFAS-containing Scotchgard to treat some types of leather during that time. Items were dumped at a House Street disposal facility in Plainfield Township as well as other suspected dump sites. The tannery has since been demolished.  

The MDEQ first began investigating Wolverine and the potential implications of the historic contamination in 2017 following a complaint from a citizens group. Testing later that year confirmed high levels of PFOS and PFOA, two of the most widely known PFAS compounds.

In January 2018, the state sued Wolverine in federal court to ensure that the company continue investigations, protect public health and clean up the contamination. The EPA also ordered Wolverine Worldwide to investigate the extent of the issue at the tannery and Plainfield Township dump site. 

While the Plainfield Township, or House Street, report still is pending, Wolverine's tannery report, first obtained and reported on by MLive, was submitted in January and released publicly by Wolverine on Monday.

In its January 2019 report to the EPA, Wolverine Worldwide reported hundreds of samples taken in and around the site revealed high levels of PFOS and PFOA in soil, ground water, surface water and sediment. In some soil and ground water samples, testing also confirmed elevated levels of metals such as hexavalent chromium, lead, mercury and arsenic, according to the report.

The deeper sampling wells didn’t appear to test as strongly for heavier metals and chemicals, other than PFAS, Kimble said.

“It seems like the PFAS got down into that aquifer and moved a lot quicker than this other stuff,” Kimble said.

The EPA plans this year to work with residents to form a community advisory group in the affected area and the state may begin additional health assessments to determine potential links between the areas of heavier PFAS concentrations identified so far and the impact on public health.

“That will be something that’s definitely developed in 2019,” said Abigail Hendershott, district supervisor for remediation and redevelopment division of the MDEQ.

Wolverine has distributed to affected homeowners more than 500 whole-house filters,  which continue to stop PFOA and PFOS compounds, the company said in a blog post Monday.

The company said in the blog post that Wolverine’s commitment to addressing water quality issues “has never wavered,” but noted that the company will continue to “vigorously defend” itself against the state’s lawsuit.

In December, Wolverine filed a lawsuit in federal court against 3M, the manufacturer of the PFAS-containing Scotchgard, and is pursuing a resolution that would force 3M and Wolverine’s insurers to take responsibility for the issues.

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