State of Michigan, Wolverine strike $69.5M deal on PFAS in west Michigan

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

The state of Michigan and Wolverine Worldwide reached a tentative deal Tuesday over PFAS contamination that will require the popular shoe manufacturer to pay $69.5 million to extend water service to more than 1,000 properties in Kent County, officials said.  

The Tannery Waste Landfill on House Street where workers from Youngs Environmental Cleanup work on October 19th, 2017.

A lawsuit, which was filed in 2018 by the then-Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, was the result of PFAS contamination found in residential drinking water wells due to Wolverine's use and discarding of materials that contained PFAS, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, the so-called forever chemicals.

Rockford, Mich.-based Wolverine will pay $69.5 million to extend municipal water to more than 1,000 properties. The extensions will be built in phases, expected to begin in 2020, according to the company. Wolverine also must continue to maintain water filters.

The agreement, state officials said, also will require Wolverine, under state supervision, to continue to address PFAS in the area groundwater.

Plainfield and Algoma townships later joined the lawsuit filed by what is now the state's Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. After mediation in September, the two sides are working to put the "terms into a binding agreement in the near future," according to a statement by the state Attorney General's Office.

"I am pleased to see progress toward getting relief for the residents and the environment in North Kent County," said Dana Nessel, the state's attorney general. "PFAS contamination is a serious environmental problem that demands action, and I am proud that Michigan is leading the nation in efforts to combat PFAS contamination.

Landfill clean-up continues on House Street where workers from Youngs Environmental Cleanup work on October 19th, 2017. House Street is one of many sites where toxic chemicals have been leaching into a private drinking water from the Wolverine World Wide company in Rockford.

"Reaching a tentative agreement with Wolverine is an important step that moves us closer to our ultimate goal of ensuring that every Michigan resident has access to clean, safe drinking water."

The agreement also calls for Plainfield Township to construct, operate and manage the municipal water extensions, which will be built in phases. Wolverine will be required to maintain water filters it has installed pending hookup to municipal water, according to the tentative deal. For homes not receiving municipal water under the deal, Wolverine must maintain filters it has already installed for any well with PFOA+PFOS detected above 10 parts per trillion.

Wolverine also will continue cleanup efforts begun in the fall around its former tannery and House Street sites, and will complete installation of a filtration system to treat groundwater for PFAS before it reaches the Rogue River.

PFAS, chemicals widely used to create non-stick surfaces including firefighting foam, Scotchgard (produced by 3M Corp. for Wolverine to waterproof the leather in its shoes), Teflon and food wrappers, have been linked to health risks such as thyroid disease, increased cholesterol levels, and kidney and testicular cancers.

Worry about PFAS sparked in communities north of Grand Rapids in the summer of 2017, when Wolverine revealed that chemicals from making popular products like Merrell, Stride Rite, Saucony and Hush Puppies shoes had leached into wells. The company began to cooperate with state environmental officials to locate dump sites.

Wolverine officials said in a statement that the company "acted quickly and voluntarily to ensure all affected residents had access to safe and reliable drinking water" by giving out bottled water, sampling wells and installing filters in homes since the PFAS discovery in 2017.

"Wolverine Worldwide has been part of this community for almost 140 years, and we are committed to being part of water quality solutions for our friends, families and neighbors in the years to come," said Blake W. Krueger, chairman, chief executive officer and president of Wolverine Worldwide.

"That's why we took fast, proactive steps from the very beginning and that's also why we are taking the additional steps being announced today to fund the extension of municipal water to more than 1,000 properties and continue our environmental remediation efforts."

According to the shoe giant, details of the plan include paying for all hookup and connection fees for homeowners. Wolverine also will contribute to fund Plainfield Township's construction of a permanent PFAS filtration system and a new municipal well field. 

The final approval for the agreement must come from U.S. District Judge Janet T. Neff.   If approved, the consent decree will officially settle the lawsuit.

Whitmer earlier this year directed EGLE and the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team to develop drinking water standards for PFAS contaminants by April 2020.

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