Wolverine Worldwide linked to contaminated water

The Michigan-based company is being sued because toxic chemicals disposed of 50 years ago have been found in local water.
Author:
Updated:
Original:
Wolverine barrels

Previous Worldwide Wolverine dumpsites are undergoing testing for potentially dangerous chemicals. These photos were posted to Varnum Law's Facebook page and were identified as old contaminated waste barrels on a property that Wolverine does not own, just south of the House Street Dump. These have recently been removed.

Wolverine Worldwide (parent company of Merrell, Chaco, Keds, Hush Puppies, and other footwear brands) might be headed to court over allegations that its tannery, which closed down in 2009 when production moved overseas, contaminated the drinking water in Rockford, Michigan, area.

In March 2017, the DEQ discovered PFAS (per– and polyfluoralkyl substances) at the former Wolverine disposal site. PFAS are a chemical associated with the 3M Scotchguard waterproofing product the company used on its popular Hush Puppy shoes.

Back in the 60s, Wolverine disposed of the chemicals in a licensed nearby facility, adhering to the standards and best practices of the time. But that waste is now linked to groundwater contamination in Kent County. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality reported that 14 out of 21 wells tested show some level of PFAS.

Christopher Hufnagel, Senior Vice President of Wolverine Worldwide, confirmed that number. “We’re in the process of testing over 300 wells in the area,” he says.

The former dumpsites, which contain scraps from the old tannery, and more than 300 homes in the area are also being tested.

Varnum Law

A consultant for Varnum Law described these materials as leather hide shavings.

Steve Kelso, marketing and communications manager at the Kent County Health Department, says “Some of those have returned results that are beyond the acceptable levels of PFAS,” he says.

“The residents who have been affected are understandably concerned,” Kelso says. “Can you imagine someone telling you that the water you have been pumping out of your well for all of these years is not safe and maybe it hasn’t been for the however many years you have lived there?”

Hufnagel says that the health impacts are still an emerging science, but Wolverine is not taking this situation lightly. “We’re a fixture in this community,” he says. “Back then in the 60s, we disposed of those bi-products in a state-licensed and -regulated facility. The state watched us do it. We know more today than we did then. We applied best practices then and we still do. It was legal. But we understand what’s happening now, and we’re not waiting for someone to tell us what to do about it.”

Wolverine Worldwide released a letter to Kent County residents outlining their short-term plan. 

Wolverine Worldwide released a letter to Kent County residents outlining their short-term plan. 

Wolverine takes action

In a letter to area homeowners dated September 21, 2017, Wolverine writes: “Earlier this summer, Wolverine learned that PFAS were detected in water from a well in the House Street area, near property owned by Wolverine. Since then, we have been working with DEQ and KCHD to sample over 100 wells for PFAS within a study area established by the DEQ. This study area was established using sound investigate principles, and represents the focus of the work right now.”

Rockford East Middle School staff and students are drinking bottled water the test come in.

“Our kids all go to these schools, we go to the same churches, these are our family friends and neighbors,” says Hufnagel. “We want to make this right for the community.”

Aside from delivering thousands of gallons of water, Wolverine has offered to install 338 homes in the study area and the buffer zones two filter solutions: A single tap source or a whole house system. (A whole house system costs approximately $5k.)

Residents prepare to sue

Residents are understandably concerned. 

Studies show that PFAS can lead to growth and learning issues with children and a developing fetus, decreased fertility, increased risk of cancer, increase in cholesterol, and impacts on the immune system, according to the CDC.

The Michigan-based firm, Varnum Law, has been retained by 50 residents filing claims against Wolverine Worldwide. The claims state that the handling resulted in possible danger to residents’ health and the environment. Varnum is investigating the correlation between the alleged chemicals from the Wolverine dumpsite and health problems that residents have been experiencing after drinking tap water.

Varnum Law

Hundreds of concerned residents gathered for a presentation by Varnum Law on the background of the contamination and the options they have moving forward.

Varnum Law attorney Aaron Phelps says that people are extremely upset after using these wells for decades. “Many residents have serious health issues and now wonder if they are linked to this long-time exposure,” he says. “Residents want more information, but it has been too slow coming.” Phelps adds that in addition to possible health issues, property values have taken a significant hit and will for some time to come.

Wolverine Worldwide received a letter on Friday with the intent to sue over contamination at the old dumpsite.

Local outdoor shops who carry Wolverine brands, including Jon Holmes, one of the managers of Bill & Paul’s Sporthaus in Grand Rapids, did not wish to comment.

Hufnagel says he understands the community’s anxiety, and he shares it. He says the company is approaching this with “an bundance of caution. We’re smarter than we were about these things 50 years ago, and we’re gonna be even smarter about them 50 years from now.” 

Related

summerOR-palace-sign-aug-17-albanese

All you need to know about what went down at Outdoor Retailer

The final Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City is behind us. And while the attendees we spoke with felt that the aisles of the Salt Palace were less crowded that usual (no official numbers have been released by the show), energy was high around the industry coming together to ...read more

A group of excited school children from the Tulaga Primary School in Kenya.

Can the outdoor industry tackle the world's water crisis?

Chilled high-altitude air washes through my lungs and reminds me of home in Colorado. My hiking shoes are anchored down by thick mud, which stubbornly sticks to their soles, on the summit of 11,900-foot Elephant Hill in the Aberdare Mountains of southwest Kenya. Mist cloaks the ...read more

Trail trash

Hey, litterbugs! Stop that.

Granite Gear's Grounds Keepers are busy packing out other people's trash while they thru-hike some of America's most iconic trails. And some of the stuff they pack out makes no sense at all. Like, a bowling ball, which leaves us with far more questions than answers. But Grounds ...read more

gearcoop-6

Outdoor industry bracing for tariffs on products from China

It’ll be 15 days before we know how hard tariffs on imports from China will hit the outdoor industry. President Donald Trump announced Thursday that the U.S. would impose $50 billion in unilateral tariffs on a wide range of consumer goods imported from China as punishment for ...read more

Irma_florida-bay-outfitters

Outdoor retailers report on impacts of Hurricane Irma

As if the devastation from Hurricane Harvey wasn’t enough, Hurricane Irma swooped through the Caribbean and Florida on Sunday wreaking havoc along the way. More than 6.7 million people in Florida are without power, and there’s flooding and damage throughout the state. "We've got ...read more

Kristin Hostetter, Jim Lamancusa, and Rich Hill

The industry speaks: Here’s how SNEWS can help you be better at your job

This year, SNEWS is celebrating 35 years of covering the outdoor industry, from in-depth dives into important trends and issues to its daily happenings. We're also launching a brand new, radically different trade journal, and it drops on Jan. 30, 2019. The talented filmmakers at ...read more

Native brochure_Sunlight Sports_Argot

The magic behind Argot, a new outdoor creative agency

It's summer break and a family of four with two teenage kids is driving to Yellowstone National Park. Noticing they need gas and knowing they need to stock up on a few camping essentials, the driver seat suggests that one of the kids find a good gear shop nearby. An ad for the ...read more

An empty ski slope with tracks and pine trees against a blue sky

Industry Buzz: Asolo, Wolverine, Burton, coronavirus, The Conservation Alliance

Asolo's changing of the guard: Asolo ends one era and begins another as industry veteran and longtime U.S. general manager Bruce Franks retires, handing the reins to Bill Lockwood, who will assume full control after the 2020 Outdoor Retailer Summer Market. Filling Jake Burton's ...read more

Misty pine trees and mountains against an orange sunset

Industry Buzz: Outdoor companies make medical supplies, Everest, national park closures, RockyMounts

The best of SNEWS: Top stories we've published recently Should Outdoor Retailer be cancelled?: We asked you if the OR Summer Market should go on as planned, be postponed, or be cancelled all together. Sixty percent agreed on one definitive answer. What do you think? Eddie Bauer ...read more