Toxic chemicals from industrial waste dumped in unlined trenches at a long-forgotten landfill have turned up this year in private residential drinking water
wells north of Grand Rapids, and public health officials worry the contamination may have been occurring unnoticed for decades.
Wolverine World Wide, a global shoe company based in Rockford, is offering bottled water and kitchen filters to residents living near a 76-acre undeveloped tract
at 1855 House Street NE in Belmont, where the company once dumped sludge from tanning pigskin.
Wells on adjacent property are testing positive for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances called PFAS, (also called perfluorinated chemicals, or PFCs), which
Wolverine used at its former tannery in Rockford to waterproof leather for shoe manufacturing.
According to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, of the 21 wells with verified results so far, 14 show some level of PFAS and 7 are above the federal
benchmark at which chronic exposure is considered to become unsafe.
In one well, officials are aghast at the contamination level and are retesting it to be absolutely certain the result is accurate.
On July 18, a well on House Street across from the old dump site tested nearly 400 times the Environmental Protection Agency advisory level for two PFAS compounds,
perfluoroctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluoroctanoic acid (PFOA).
PFOA was found at 4,600 parts-per-trillion (ppt), and PFOS at 23,000-ppt in the well. The EPA advisory level for both chemicals is 70-ppt.
At 27,600-ppt, the well has the highest combined PFOS and PFOA concentration that Michigan Department of Health and Human Services toxicologists have ever seen
before in a drinking water well -- higher, even, than in Oscoda, where PFAS compounds are widespread in the groundwater near the old Wurtsmith
Air Force Base.
"It's off the scale," said David O'Donnell, remediation division supervisor at the DEQ office in Grand Rapids. "We hope it's an outlier."
Other affected wells are testing between 117- and 1,430-ppt combined for PFOS and PFOA. The fluorinated chemicals are no longer manufactured in the United States
because of their public health risk. Through studies, exposure has been tied to liver disease, thyroid malfunction, pediatric developmental problems and other endocrine and immune system
The DEQ has an incomplete picture of the contamination problem because not all wells at potential risk have been tested yet, and those which have been tested are at
different depths because of hilly terrain, making it tough to interpret results, O'Donnell said.
Results are pending for a round of August testing, he said.
Because very little investigation has occurred on the actual dump site, the DEQ doesn't know exactly where the plume originates, at what depths and through what
kind of soil pathways the chemicals are moving, how far it extends and how long it's been there.
The dump site occupies a piece of high ground in the area and groundwater flows away from the site in several directions. The DEQ has found some lower level PFAS
hits at wells east of U.S. 131, near Chandler Drive and Herrington Ave. NE, along what O'Donnell says is a natural watershed valley that drains to the Rogue River.
O'Donnell said testing on the dump site starts in September.
"Next steps after we get people alternative water is to go back onto the landfill and try to figure out where the contamination is."
That may not be a quick process. This may take "months, maybe years to really get nailed down," O'Donnell said.
O'Donnell credited the Concerned Citizens for Responsible Redevelopment group in Rockford with bringing the dump site to his attention. In January, the
group alerted DEQ staff to the fact that Wolverine made its iconic Hush Puppies shoe brand for decades using Scotchgard, a fabric protector sold by 3M that featured PFOS as the key chemical
The group urged the DEQ to start looking at old tannery
In April, O'Donnell said Wolverine began to sample for PFAS in wells at homes on Brent Road and Brittany Drive NE, two private streets along the northeast
corner of the dump property.
Samples were coming back with low PFAS levels, O'Donnell said, and it wasn't until May, when the nearby Michigan National Guard Armory gave the DEQ coincidental
PFAS sampling data on its property that DEQ realized homes on House Street needed immediate testing.
The armory is south of the dump. It tested its wells as part of an ongoing nationwide Department of Defense investigation into PFAS contamination at all military
Wolverine testing subsequently found higher contamination south and west of the dump. Leather hides from the tannery have also been found in the area, said
In addition to PFOS and PFOA, more than 20 other fluorinated compounds have been sampled for. Some, such as perfluorobutane sulfonate, or PFBS -- a compound
developed by 3M to replace PFOS in Scotchgard -- are also being found at elevated levels.
Scientists who study compounds like PFOS and PFOA consider the public health threat they pose to be significant because they are each toxic, water soluble, bio-accumulative and persist in the
environment due to the strength of the fluorine-bonded, long-chain chemistry, which does not naturally degrade.
According to the Michigan DHHS, studies have shown long-chain PFAS like PFOS and PFOA have developmental toxicity, which makes exposure to children of particular
concern. Exposure to PFOS has been linked to linked to delayed puberty onset and associated with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
An epidemiological study of people living near a DuPont plant on the Ohio-West Virginia border linked PFOA exposure to kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative
colitis, thyroid disease, high cholesterol and high blood pressure during pregnancy.
Homeowners near the Wolverine dump are reluctant to speak openly about the problem, privately expressing frustration, confusion and grief at the situation. Some
have raised families on the street and lived in the area for decades. Others worry about what health affects the contaminated water might have on their children and grandchildren.
Some homeowners say they knew the nearby property was a Wolverine dump, but were told when they moved to the area it was only used for animal hides.
Because the dumping occurred decades ago, the toxicants may have been contaminating wells without anyone's knowledge for decades. The chemicals have no smell or taste.
Some residents have consulted with attorneys about potential claims against Wolverine.
O'Donnell said the dump was operating legally when it was open. DEQ documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show the dump was state-licensed until
1978, when Michigan's solid waste disposal laws were strengthened, but was effectively mothballed around 1970 when Wolverine began sending waste elsewhere.
Tannery sludge was dumped in unlined trenches and then covered with dirt. According to DEQ records, waste was dumped on a daily basis during the 1960s. The
toxicity of PFAS compounds didn't become public knowledge until years later.
A 1964 state Water Resources Commission memo indicates Wolverine began disposing of industrial waste on House Street in 1939. The company tannery opened in 1908
and began using PFAS compounds in 1958. The memo, written by commission chief engineer Ralph Purdy, cites staff geological opinion that "there appears to be no danger to well water supplies as a
result of the proposed use of the site for waste disposal."
Records indicate the site soil is a mix of sand, gravel and clay.
"Regulations back then were designed to keep away nuisances like odors and vermin -- that was pretty much it," O'Donnell said, calling the situation the result of
"unenlightened, pre-environmental industrial disposal policy."
Scant indications the site is polluted exist today. An old wire fence with "No Trespassing" signs line the north shoulder of House Street. Beyond the fence is
wooded, hilly terrain.
Wolverine corporate communications staff referred questions about the dump to an outside public relations firm.
In a statement to MLive, Wolverine said the dump site "has not been determined to be a source of either PFOA or PFOS, but given our longstanding commitment to this
community Wolverine has been working with the DEQ and Kent County Health Department over the past several weeks to test samples from the area."
Wolverine, its consultants and the DEQ have been going door-to-door in the area handing out bottled water and Meijer gift cards, as well as offering
Aquasana filters that homeowners can install under the sink to filter out most of the PFAS compounds.
Wolverine confirmed to MLive the dump site was "not used by others" and stopped operation in the early 1970s. "Since then, it has been used for a Christmas Tree
farm, but basically left fallow," the company said in a statement. Work at the site begins Sept. 5.
The DEQ is relying on Wolverine to conduct the investigation because of budgetary constraints, said O'Donnell. "The
state couldn't possibly afford to do this. Our funds are pretty much out for response activities like this," he said.
Sara Simmonds, environmental health director at Kent County Health Department, called the under-sink filters being offered by Wolverine a "starting point," but the
department considers them an interim measure because "they require operation and maintenance and may not be a viable financial option for some residents."
Simmonds said the health department wants to see Plainfield Township water mains extended up House Street. Although there's a township water tower nearby, the
utility system doesn't quite reach up House Street to the affected homes.
Simmonds also wants to see the speed of investigation quicken. Of the DEQ, she said "the pace they move is often times not the same pace we would hope
Educating residents about the risk posed by PFAS has been tough.
"Even for people who work with water on a regular basis, it's a steep learning curve," Simmonds said. Trying to convey the seriousness of the threat to homeowners
involves "using words and chemical names they have never heard of. There's a lot of concern there."
Health officials are trying to pass along information on what's considered an emerging contaminant, "but we're still in the process of learning about it ourselves," she said.