GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (CN) – Dangerous levels of toxic chemicals used to waterproof shoe leather have polluted dozens of residential drinking water wells, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality claims, forcing residents to turn to bottled water.
The state agency filed a federal lawsuit on Wednesday demanding that Wolverine World Wide of Rockford, Mich., clean up toxic waste deriving from its footwear operations at the Rockford Tannery leather shoe factory in the mid-1950s through 1970. The site is about 15 miles north of Grand Rapids.
Wolverine, which is the parent company of Hush Puppies and also makes footwear for Caterpillar and Harley-Davidson, processed hide and leathers for shoes, boots and other products between 1908 and 2009 at the site, according to the state’s complaint, filed by Assistant Attorney General Polly Synk in Grand Rapids federal court.
Chemicals from the waterproofing process included perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also called PFAS, that the Environmental Protection Agency says can attack the immune system and has been linked to developmental problems, liver and thyroid diseases and cancer.
The chemicals are used in the food and textile industries and are found in non-stick, waterproof and stain-resistant products. The man-made chemicals break down slowly and dissolve readily, allowing them to leech through soil to groundwater, according to the state’s lawsuit.
Wolverine has sampled for the toxins at the Rockford Tannery and the adjacent Rogue River and found the contaminants present in groundwater and the waterway, the complaint states.
Wolverine sampled 640 residential wells for PFAS originating from a landfill in Belmont and reportedly found that 30 wells have tested above levels that Michigan and the EPA consider safe. The company sampled 549 residential wells at other locations in Kent County and found that 48 residential wells were contaminated at levels the agency says could threaten human health and the environment, according to the complaint.
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality says the legal action follows the establishment of new clean-up criteria for fluorochemicals in groundwater at 70 parts per trillion, bringing the state in line with federal environmental regulations.
According to the lawsuit, Wolverine has cooperated with regulators and is providing bottled drinking water to all residents whose wells are contaminated. The company has also installed hundreds of filtrations systems, and has taken remedial action at a disposal site at its landfill in Belmont.
The state agency said in a news release that it wants a fixed timeline for the clean-up and wants Wolverine to foot the bill for past and future costs related to the work.
Heidi Grether, director of the Department of Environmental Quality, said the new standard prompted the state to file suit to ensure Wolverine’s long-term compliance with the plans.
“The state of Michigan is committed to holding responsible parties accountable. We have filed this action today because we want to ensure that immediate and long-term solutions are confirmed by the courts,” Grether said. “This action will be helpful in providing a clearly defined path forward to implement permanent solutions for the community.”
On Wednesday, the EPA issued an administrative order against Wolverine for further investigation of the landfill and factory sites for hazardous chemicals including arsenic, chromium, mercury and ammonia.
It said an area next to the site of the Tannery is a popular spot for children to swim in during the summer. Groundwater is used for drinking water within four miles of the Tannery site, according to the EPA’s order.
Wolverine said it has worked closely with state regulators since 2011 to investigate the sites and said that the state’s action would formalize the company’s own investigatory and remedial actions. Despite decades of research, the effect of the chemicals on human health is still unknown, the company said.
“This is our hometown and these are our friends, families and neighbors. We are committed to doing the right thing and seeing this through to the end,” said Chris Hufnagel, Wolverine’s senior vice president and head of strategy.
The company sought to downplay the danger to the community, noting that PFOA and PFOS are found in food wrappers, microwave popcorn bags, carpets, and electrical tape.
“Due to their widespread use over such a long period of time, PFOA and PFOS can be found virtually everywhere and in everyone,” the company said.
Michigan’s complaint was brought under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and state Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act.