GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Attorneys suing over Wolverine Worldwide's PFAS contamination describe a high-stakes game between the Rockford shoemaker and the company that made the chemical.
The original lawsuits filed by homeowners in northern Kent County named only Wolverine as a defendant, but amended complaints filed Monday now include 3M.
The lawsuits claim that 3M, the chemical company based in Minnesota, and the Rockford-based Wolverine each spent years separately covering up the impacts of the likely carcinogen.
At one point, the lawsuit claims, Wolverine asked a potential buyer of the highly contaminated House Street dump in Belmont not to conduct an environmental study.
3M, the lawsuit claims, hid the potential dangers of PFAS from federal regulators and initially from Wolverine.
But once Wolverine learned about it, the shoemaker hid it from state regulators and from Kent County homeowners who drank PFAS in their well water, according to the lawsuit.
Paul Albarran, an attorney representing the homeowners, said the 141-page amended complaint was based mostly on records subpoenaed from 3M.
"3M has known for decades that PFASs persist in the environment, end up in human blood, and cause adverse health effects in human," the lawsuit alleges. "3M concealed these facts for many decades, and Wolverine says 3M concealed these facts from Wolverine too."
Wolverine used Scotchgard with PFAS at its Rockford tannery for decades to treat pigskin to make Hush Puppies.
The lawsuit alleges that Wolverine learned about 3M's "inside information" nearly 20 years ago but kept it quiet.
The lawyers said they found documents that show Wolverine was aware of potential hazards at the House Street dump when local Christmas tree farmer Tom Lenderink offered to buy the land in 1996. The farmer, already leasing the land and aware of previous dumping, wanted to build a golf course and offered to pay $25,000 for the dump.
Documents show the farmer and Wolverine thought a lease "may be better for Wolverine W.W. because it appears there would not have to be any environmental studies in such a proposal," according to the lawsuit.
In a proposed sales document, Wolverine wrote: "Purchaser agrees not to conduct any further environmental investigation of the property or to submit a baseline environmental assessment to the MDEQ (Michigan Department of Environmental Quality)," the lawsuit states. "Purchaser shall not undertake any improvement, development or use of the property that would or could involve exposure of the waste material."
Lenderink, according to the lawsuit, suggested a "Due Care" clause to "greatly protect Wolverine Worldwide from liability in the future."
"As regulations 'stiffen' again in the future, and as more neighbors move in and around the site, it would be highly recommended to establish this "Due Care' now, and not let this sleeping dog lie," Lenderink wrote.
"For if the site goes unaddressed there will come the day when a neighbor questions the integrity of this vacant parcel of land," he wrote.
The Christmas tree farmer agreed to put a cap over the waste.
"Instead of doing the right thing, Wolverine turned a blind eye and let the 'sleeping dog' lie," the attorneys alleged in the lawsuit.
That sale didn't go through.
A short time later, in 1999, 3M warned Wolverine about the potential hazards of PFAS, according to a letter first obtained by Target 8.
In a meeting later that year, Wolverine told 3M it was worried about possible PFAS levels in tannery workers and the "potential business impact of publicity," according to 3M documents quoted in the lawsuit.
That year, according to the lawsuit, Wolverine sent water samples to 3M to test for PFAS. An industrial hygienist for 3M also took three air samples at Wolverine's tannery. One exceeded 3M's exposure level for PFAS, the lawsuit states.
3M started phasing out PFAS in 2000.
Fifteen years later, in 2015, Wolverine proposed selling the House Street dump to Lenderink, the lawsuit alleges.
Wolverine said the land was worth $440,000 and included restrictions:
"Wells and use of groundwater on the property would not be allowed," and, "You shall not do any environmental studies, tests or evaluations of the property before closing," according to documents quoted in the lawsuit.
The land couldn't be used for food crops or homes.
That sale also did not go through, though Lenderink kept using the land to grow Christmas trees.
"Wolverine Worldwide will respond to these issues in court, which is the appropriate venue for these issues," the company said in a Monday statement to 24 Hour News 8.
The Varnum law firm has filed at least 140 lawsuits over the PFAS contamination that has spread to parts of Plainfield and Algoma townships and into Rockford. It has contaminated 800 wells over an area that is five miles long and six miles wide, leading to fears of cancer, miscarriages and other illnesses. Wolverine has installed filters at many of those homes.
Wolverine had asked the judge to include 3M in the case. The shoemaker claims 3M should be held responsible because it didn't warn it about the potential dangers of PFAS, a likely carcinogen, that was in the Scotchgard.
Earlier this year, 3M agreed to pay $850 million to settle a lawsuit filed by the state of Minnesota over its dumping of PFAS in that state.
RESOURCES FOR PLAINFIELD AND ALGOMA TOWNSHIP RESIDENTS:
If you are eligible for a whole-house water filtration system from Wolverine Worldwide, you can call 616.866.5627 or email HouseStreet@wwwinc.com.
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Environmental Assistance Center can be reached at 1.800.662.9278.
Websites with additional information on the contamination:
- Algoma Township
- Plainfield Township
- Kent County Health Department
- Water testing interactive map
- Michigan Department of Environmental Quality
- Michigan PFAS Action Response Team
- Varnum PFAS Contamination updates Facebook group
- Wolverine Worldwide