Shoemaker accolades ‘a slap in the face’ for PFAS homeowners

Kent County

ROCKFORD, Mich. (WOOD) — Rockford Footwear Depot, which is owned by Wolverine Worldwide, has been named “Business of the Year” by the Rockford Chamber of Commerce, decision sparking outrage after Wolverine waste tainted drinking water with the likely carcinogen PFAS.

“It’s a slap in the face from the Rockford Chamber of Commerce,” said Sandy Wynn-Stelt of Belmont.

Her private well across from Wolverine’s old dump on House Street has some of the highest levels of the PFAS class of chemicals in the area. Her blood has high levels of it, too. PFAS has been linked to certain types of cancer and other illnesses including thyroid problems, ulcerative colitis and problems with fertility and pregnancy.

The polluted water at Wynn-Stelt’s home was discovered in 2017, the year after her husband died of liver cancer. She still drinks out of water jugs, sits through constant testing and keeps meeting with health department and other officials about the contamination.

“It’s our life. It’s our life now,” she said.

She said naming Wolverine Worldwide the “Business of the Year” adds insult to injury.

“They may have really good employees. I bet they (Wolverine Worldwide) do have people that are really dedicated,” she said. “But I think there are a lot of other places that could have received that award that could have spoken better.”

Asked Thursday if the Rockford Chamber of Commerce regrets the choice, Executive Director Linda Southwick said no.

“For all the things that Rockford Footwear Depot has been this past year and its employees, no,” Southwick said. “Because I think they should be recognized for the good things they’ve done in the town. I regret that it has been a negativity in our town.”

Southwick said the winners were selected by votes from chamber members. Votes were based on set of criteria including humanitarian efforts, civic chamber support and quality of life improvements.

“I don’t know that you can call digging up the Rouge River under EPA authority is quality of life,” Wynn-Stelt laughed.

“We are very sensitive,” Southwick said. “We know the issues of the PFAS and we know that it’s a serious issue. I live here and grew up here. … Unfortunately 50 years ago, we didn’t know the effects of what happened. But Wolverine along with (state environmental and health agencies) are responding responsibly to the issue and we’ve seen that in our town.”

Many of Wolverine’s cleanup actions have been forced on the company by government agencies and potential lawsuits.

On Friday, Wolverine provided this statement to News 8:

“Wolverine Worldwide has been a part of this community for almost 140 years, and we couldn’t be more proud to call Rockford our hometown. We are honored to have been selected by the Chamber of Commerce for this recognition, and grateful to our employees for the positive impact they make in our community every day.”

Wynn-Stelt said the award could have a negative impact on Rockford businesses overall.

“It’s 2020. We are past the age where we have a town be beholden to a company and that’s what it kind of feels like it is,” she said.

“I don’t think that the city of Rockford or the chamber of commerce understands the day-to-day stuff that this has put this community through,” she added. “I think they are just blind to that. So hopefully, if the chamber of commerce says, ‘We made a mistake and we understand,’ that’s all that I can ask for, is that they say we make a mistake.”

The chamber is not apologizing.

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