PFAS-related suits gain steam as litigants hit Wolverine Worldwide
Grand Rapids — Some of the nation's high-profile environmental law firms, along with Michigan-based ones, are waging legal battles related to PFAS contamination in the state after decades of waste dumping by a popular shoe manufacturer that has seeped into private wells.
The civil lawsuits over per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, the so-called forever chemicals, have been grinding away quietly for months. Depositions are being taken of employees and top officials of Wolverine Worldwide, 3M and others involved in the toxic contamination cases that have gripped west Michigan over possible health risks for more than a year.
PFAS has links to health risks such as thyroid disease, increased cholesterol levels, and kidney and testicular cancers. State officials are conducting a two-year assessment of the blood serum and drinking water samples from roughly 800 Kent County residents, half of which have been exposed to high PFAS levels through their water supply and half of which have low to no PFAS in their water.
While the Grand Rapids-based law firm Varnum represents more than 200 Kent County residents in individual state court cases, law firms from New Jersey, Chicago and South Carolina have formed a partnership with Metro Detroit firms to represent a handful of residents to take on Wolverine Worldwide, the shoe giant located north of Grand Rapids.
Sandy Wynn-Stelt, 59, who is represented by the Varnum firm, said she and other Belmont residents "naively thought Wolverine would work with us and resolve this." But she said "it became pretty clear pretty quickly that there was no intent to work with us" to find a resolution.
Wolverine Worldwide has defended itself, noting it has helped sample water from private wells, provide bottled water for affected residents and provide water filters for homes. It argues it "continues to work tirelessly on behalf of our community," the company said in a statement.
The lawsuits, along with a federal class-action suit, are among a flurry of legal skirmishes. Wolverine officials last year sued 3M in federal court, accusing the maker of Scotchgard fabric protector of withholding key information about chemicals used on Wolverine's shoe products, some of which became scraps that were dumped into the ground.
PFAS-related suits have been filed in other parts of the country, such as in upstate New York. But Michigan has become a flash point for the issue because of the scores of contamination sites across the state and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's push for tougher health standards due to lagging U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rule-making.
"It's really important litigation because PFAS is an emerging issue, and not just in Michigan but in different parts of the country," said Esther Berezofsky of the Berezofsky Law Group, which is leading a group of out-of-state attorneys suing Wolverine. "It's important because there's been a concerted effort on behalf of the industry that manufactures these chemicals to lobby over many decades to keep them from being regulated."
If the civil cases aren't settled, there could be as many as four trial days or more beginning in 2020, according to the attorneys.
Chicago, N.J. firms involved
Among the out-of-state firms are New Jersey-based Berezofsky, Motley Rice in South Carolina and Wexler Wallace in Chicago. They are joined by Sommers Schwartz in Southfield, Pitt, McGehee, Palmer & Rivers in Royal Oak and Warner Norcross & Judd in Grand Rapids.
Berezofsky's firm also has been involved with the class-action lawsuit over the Flint water crisis contamination. In that litigation, former Gov. Rick Snyder was reinstated as a defendant. Motley Rice helped negotiate the BP Deepwater Horizon settlement
The number of law firms and attorneys involved in the PFAS cases indicate the issue is "very complex and there are a lot of moving parts" to go with millions of documents dating back decades, Berezofsky said.
"It's important because these chemicals are very persistent in the environment and they are very persistent in people once people are exposed to them," she said.
Wynn-Stelt knows about PFAS exposure. The Belmont resident who lives across from one of the Wolverine dumpsites has had PFAS levels in her drinking water ranging from 21,000 to 60,000 parts per trillion — 300 times to 855 times more than the national health advisory standard.
In 2016, Wynn-Stelt's husband died of liver cancer, less than a month after being diagnosed. The following year, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality tested and found contaminants in her water system, making her think there was a link to his untimely passing.
"They tested, and they found this extraordinarily high level of PFAS. They tested again perhaps thinking it was a fluke because at that time it was some of the highest that had ever been seen in private wells," Wynn-Stelt said. "It was even higher the second time."
The Rockford-based Wolverine said in a statement that while it "continues to work tirelessly on behalf of our community, we have repeatedly said that we will vigorously defend ourselves against litigation and take aggressive action to ensure that all involved parties — including 3M and our insurers — take responsibility for this matter."
3M "developed, tested, manufactured and sold Scotchgard to Wolverine and millions of others for decades, but has repeatedly refused to accept any responsibility for the impacts" of the toxins that have now affected west Michigan residents, the shoemaker said.
Officials for Minnesota-based 3M did not return a call for comment.
Discontent about Wolverine's efforts
Apprehension about PFAS was prompted in communities north of Grand Rapids in the summer of 2017, when Wolverine revealed that chemicals from making popular products like Merrell, Stride Rite and Hush Puppies shoes had leached into wells. The company began to cooperate with state environmental officials to locate dump sites as residents panicked.
Wolverine said it has spent $30 million to help residents in the Grand Rapids area. It has sampled over 1,500 residential wells and installed more than 70 monitoring wells; offered bottled drinking water to every home being sampled; provided over 500 filters and over 200 point-of-use filters to screen for PFOA and PFOS, two kind of PFAS compounds.
The shoemaker also said it worked with the state Department of Environmental Quality and U.S. EPA at the House Street disposal site and former Tannery site to determine the possible sources and extent of PFOA and PFOS.
But the affected people feel let down by Wolvervine, said Aaron Phelps, a partner with the Varnum firm who still meets with affected residents who are not part of the lawsuits.
"For a long time, people bought into the Wolverine PR that they were going to do the right thing and they were going to make things better, they were going to fix it and take care of people and you didn't need to bring a lawsuit," Phelps said. "... There's no municipal water, no monetary relief for anybody, except deny that there's a problem."
Another Varnum client, Terry Hula, 59, of Belmont, said she has had major concerns since state officials told her about the contamination of her private well and said in October 2018 that her water tank had failed.
"Because of the contamination, we will not be allowed to dig in another well," Hula said. Water is shipped in once a week, she said, and placed in a different 1,500-gallon tank for weekly use by Hula until municipal water is brought in.
While Wolverine has paid for the water delivery and she's "grateful for that," Hula said it's really about "living one day at a time and hope that the right people will step up and do that right thing. We all have health problems and we of course wonder if they are connected" to PFAS.
The PFAS lawsuits are significant because "the contamination levels here are very high and they affect a large number of people," Varnum lawyer Phelps said. More people are likely to come forward to seek legal representation, he said, but they have until sometime next year because the statute of limitations is three years from when the PFAS was discovered.