Judge questions if city water is ‘only remedy’ in PFAS zones

Toxic Tap Water

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A federal judge refused to remove Plainfield and Algoma townships from a lawsuit against Wolverine Worldwide Inc., which the shoemaker had requested, but she questioned whether city water is needed for those with wells tainted by PFAS.

“I’m not convinced that municipal water is the only potential remedy,” U.S. District Judge Janet Neff said during a hearing Thursday.

She questioned whether other parts of the aquifer could be tapped for water.

It’s not clear what this means for residents in Plainfield and Algoma townships, where hundreds of families are drinking water with filters that Wolverine provided to clear out the chemical, a likely carcinogen that has also been linked to other illnesses.

“I’m confident I can convince the court that municipal water is the only practical remedy here,” township attorney Douglas Van Essen said after the hearing. “You simply can’t have these whole-house filters for 100 or 200 years. Where’s the financing for that? Who’s going to monitor whether they really are working?”

The townships had hoped to start earlier this year extending municipal water to PFAS-polluted areas. Now they say they won’t start until at least 2020, and that could depend on how far Wolverine takes its fight.

“If Wolverine is going to continue to resist on every level and insist on a trial on whether municipal water is the only practical remedy, that could delay it another year,” Van Essen said.

Thursday’s hearing featured nine attorneys in all — from the state, the townships, Wolverine and 3M. The state Department of Environmental Quality originally filed the federal lawsuit against Wolverine, but Plainfield and Algoma townships joined in as plaintiffs.

Wolverine also filed a claim against 3M, saying the Minnesota-based manufacturer is responsible for the mess. The source of the PFAS is believed to be the 3M-made Scotchgard that Wolverine used to waterproof its shoes. PFAS is no longer found in Scotchgard.

An attorney for 3M told the judge on Thursday that the company is preparing a motion to dismiss the case against it.

Rockford-based Wolverine dumped PFAS-laced sludge into its dump on House Street NE in Plainfield Township for years until decades ago. It has since spread for miles into wells.

Wolverine attorneys said the company tested wells at 1,500 homes, finding PFAS in about 600. In 123 of those, the level was above the 70 parts per trillion level considered unsafe. They said the company has installed expensive whole-house filters in 530 homes and that tests show they are working.

But the township’s attorney argued Wolverine installed the filters illegally without the required permits. He said he can’t guarantee they’re working and that residents shouldn’t be counting on Wolverine to make sure they are. Van Essen suggested the townships could pass an ordinance requiring Wolverine to prove the filters are working.

“Not just a lawyer standing up in court for a shoe company saying it’s working,” he said.

The judge gave both sides six months to build their cases on who is legally liable for the contamination. That could eventually lead to a trial.

After they determine who is liable, it could take another trial to decide whether city water is the remedy.

The townships expected a $30 million price tag to extend city water to about 500 homes in the House Street and Wellington Ridge areas. Van Essen said Plainfield Township has spent more than $500,000 for engineering the extension project with the expectation that Wolverine would reimburse the costs under a consent decree. Plainfield Township says the company broke off settlement talks in November, but Wolverine has said it never put a stop to the discussions.

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