After nine months, Wolverine Worldwide has ended settlement negotiations with two local townships over paying costs associated with PFAS contamination from Wolverine’s alleged waste disposal practices.
Municipal attorney Douglas Van Essen — who is representing Plainfield and Algoma townships in the federal court proceeding initiated in January by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality — said there’s “virtually no chance” the townships will be able to extend municipal drinking water in the coming year to residents whose wells have been contaminated with PFAS after Rockford-based footwear maker Wolverine Worldwide ended settlement discussions.
At a news conference Dec. 11, Van Essen said Wolverine would not voluntarily pay to extend Plainfield’s municipal water to areas contaminated with PFAS — unless the chemical’s manufacturer, 3M, contributes to the cost.
Wolverine used 3M Scotchgard to provide water- and stain-repellant properties in some of its shoe leathers beginning around 1960. It switched to a new formula introduced by 3M Scotchgard around 2002 when the potentially harmful properties of the chemicals were discovered and 3M made the switch.
Wolverine Worldwide in spring 2017 discovered PFAS-contaminated drinking water in the House Street NE area.
The two townships released a statement at the news conference saying because of Wolverine’s decision, they likely will not be able to begin construction in the spring on four loop extensions designed to bring municipal water to more than 300 homeowners in the House Street and Wellington Ridge areas of the contamination.
The statement said Wolverine’s decision also leaves water customers having to foot the bill for nearly $500,000 in preliminary engineering and design costs incurred by the water system as negotiations took place.
The townships and the state of Michigan will resume active litigation against Wolverine Worldwide in federal court — a process that was stayed in March as all parties paused to negotiate a consent agreement, according to the statement.
While Wolverine had said it hoped to hold 3M responsible for a portion of the costs, until last week, the company had not conditioned its participation in a consent decree compelling it to provide the reimbursement for public costs incurred in extending municipal water lines and connecting homes affected by the PFAS contamination to those lines, the townships’ statement said.
The townships will now explore all available avenues “to hold Wolverine accountable for its actions,” the statement said.
“Wolverine’s position change is extremely unfortunate and disappointing,” Van Essen said. “Wolverine is not saying it has changed its mind that municipal water is the permanent solution or that it is responsible for these costs. Instead, the company is delaying the inevitable with the sole purpose of trying to put pressure on 3M, which manufactured the chemicals, to contribute to the costs.”
In January, the MDEQ sued Wolverine in federal court under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and Part 201 of the state’s National Resources and Environmental Protection Act. The lawsuit was designed to recover costs associated with decades of PFAS contamination after Wolverine allegedly dumped tannery waste throughout northern Kent County.
Plainfield and Algoma townships joined the lawsuit in March.
Van Essen said experts have agreed the “only viable long-term remedy” to providing clean, safe drinking water to residents was the extension of municipal water to affected areas.
Wolverine said it wanted to negotiate a consent judgment in response to the lawsuit, and negotiations followed for months.
“The state shares the townships’ goals of securing safe, reliable water as quickly as possible for affected residents, (and) we worked cooperatively with Wolverine to draft plans for bringing municipal water online for many residents as soon as this coming year, but unfortunately, Wolverine appears to be turning away from those cooperative efforts,” the MDEQ said in a statement.
“While disappointed in Wolverine’s choice, the state will work with the townships to obtain relief through the judicial process as quickly and efficiently as possible.”
This spring, Plainfield Township secured a $750,000 grant from the state to purchase, install and monitor granular activated carbon filters in its municipal water system to remove PFAS. Installation was completed this fall, and multiple tests have shown the water to be “nondetect” for PFOS and PFOA.
Wolverine’s recent announcement again starts the clock on the lawsuit, meaning the company will have until Dec. 21 to answer the original complaint.
“We have wasted the better part of a year listening to Wolverine and waiting for the company to do the right thing,” said Plainfield Charter Township Superintendent Cameron Van Wyngarden. “We remain committed to holding Wolverine accountable under the law for its responsibility of providing a comprehensive, long-term solution for providing clean, safe drinking water to residents — and cleaning up the land it has contaminated in a manner that does not adversely affect property values or public health.
“If Wolverine wants to sue 3M for contribution, that is the company’s choice. But to delay fulfillment of its responsibilities to the community until 3M is willing to pay voluntarily or through court order is irresponsible and inconsistent with Wolverine’s promises to the community up until this point.”
Algoma Township Supervisor Kevin Green echoed Van Wyngarden’s disappointment, noting: “We thought we were working cooperatively with Wolverine Worldwide on multiple fronts for solutions to both the water and environmental problems. The townships and state will now have to step back without (Wolverine) and develop a comprehensive and coordinated plan to hold (Wolverine) accountable through judicial and regulatory proceedings.”
The townships expect a conference with the federal court during the first quarter of 2019.
Wolverine said in a statement it “remains at the table and is committed to discussing water quality solutions with Plainfield Township, Algoma Township and the state. This is a position we have held from day one, and any suggestion that Wolverine is unwilling to negotiate, has stepped away from the table, or has recently changed its position is simply untrue.
“From the beginning, we have said that multiple parties contributed to the water quality issues in our community, and any solution must include all relevant parties.
The company said it will continue to provide filters and clean drinking water to the affected households “while conducting groundwater sampling, analysis and investigation to fully determine the possible sources and extent of PFOA and PFOS.”