PLAINFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — The company responsible for contaminating drinking water in northern Kent County is working to remediate remaining pollution.
In 2017, news broke that Wolverine Worldwide decades ago dumped sludge tainted with PFAS, a likely carcinogen, at sites in northern Kent County. One of those locations was at a dump on House Street NE in a Belmont neighborhood. The manufacturing waste dumped at the site ruined water in about 1,000 wells.
“It’s been insane,” said Sandy Wynn-Stelt, who has lived directly across from the now closed dump site since 1992. “I don’t know any other way to put it.”
Neighbors in Belmont filed lawsuits claiming the PFAS contamination caused them to become sick over the years or could in the future. Wynn-Stelt says though she cannot prove it, she believes her 2020 cancer diagnosis may be connected to PFAS.
Neighbors now have clean water through the township but say the proposals from Wolverine aren’t enough to protect the next generation.
“I can’t tell you how horrible it is to go through finding out you’ve been contaminated,” Wynn-Stelt said. “It feels like we kind of have to be that barrier to protect other people from experiencing this down the road because it’s not being taken seriously by the responsible party now.”
The Community Advisory Group that helps guide the response to the contamination scheduled a virtual meeting for Thursday evening at which the community was expected to discuss the company’s proposals.
At a January meeting, Wolverine proposed turning the area into a functional nature preserve with recreational spaces and a parking lot. The Rockford-based shoe manufacturer planned to add trees to the already wooded area. The trees roots were meant to act as pumps, pulling remaining PFAS out of the ground and dissipating the chemical over time in a process called phytoremediation.
Some local environmental scientists say they were concerned trees would not be a viable option.
“Phytoremediation is slow and there’s only been one study where they’ve applied phytoremediation to a PFAS site and that publication, that review that they published, was done in Sweden at the Stockholm airport. They’re saying it’s thousands of years to remove the PFAS,” GVSU Professor Rick Rediske, who helped discover the contamination, said.
An asphalt parking lot in Wolverine’s plan was meant to serve as an impervious surface that prevents rainwater from leeching more PFAS into groundwater. This process is called strategic capping.
“If you put down an asphalt parking lot in, obviously the water doesn’t seep down beneath the asphalt so anything buried below the asphalt will not be exposed to rain water and just by doing that, you’re preventing this waste from leeching into the groundwater and further expanding the plume,” Rediske explained.
The company says after hearing feedback from neighbors on the original proposal, it filed a feasibility plan with Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy with some revisions.
Under the new plan, instead of a nature preserve with recreational spaces, public use would likely be limited. Wolverine also scrapped plans for a parking lot. It will lay an impervious surface made of “specially engineered membranes.” That material will be placed over the thickest areas of PFAS, preventing it from getting into the groundwater. It would still plan to add some 4,000 trees for the phytoremediation process.
It says if EGLE does not approve the plan, which it is calling the “Phyto-Cap” proposal,” then there are plans to construct a surface cap that spans approximately 30 acres. Wolverine says this would be essentially clearcutting the area.
Neighbors say there are a number of questions that remain. They want the company to go back to the drawing board.
“I see the suffering that we have had in our community and that sounds a little melodramatic, but we’ve had neighbors who were sick, been ill,” Wynn-Stelt said. “My husband died almost five years ago to the day. So to have a 40-page plan of planting trees in the forest feels dismissive.”