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Deal reached between state, townships and Wolverine World Wide over PFAS

Wolverine World Wide has agreed to pay $69.5 million to extend a new municipal water system to Kent County residents in areas affected by PFAS contamination the company and Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel announced Tuesday. 

The deal will also require the company to pay to maintain the whole house filtration systems installed in most PFAS-affected homes on private wells, investigate and “mitigate risk” at their former tannery, House Street and Rogue River sites, and continue to monitor and study groundwater under state oversight, the Attorney General’s office said. 

The agreement is not yet binding: It must be approved by a federal judge before it goes into effect. If finalized, it would end the state’s current claims against Wolverine related to PFAS, a group of thousands of chemicals that are used to make products water- and stain-resistant, and which have been linked to a variety of health problems including cancers. The judge is expected to sign off on the agreement sometime in “the next several weeks,” according to Plainfield and Algoma townships, which initially brought the suit seeking the municipal water extension. 

“I am pleased to see progress toward getting relief for the residents and the environment in North Kent County,” Nessel said in a statement Tuesday. “Reaching a tentative agreement with Wolverine is an important step that moves us closer to our ultimate goal of ensuring that every Michigan resident has access to clean, safe drinking water.”

Materials released Tuesday by the state, townships and Wolverine did not include details of what the company’s responsibilities would be going forward to address PFAS and its potential risks to human and environmental health in the area, though they indicated the company will be responsible for remediation. 

As Bridge Magazine reported, addressing PFAS contamination in West Michigan could cost hundreds of millions of dollars long-term, depending on remediation plans. 

“I’m relieved and hopeful. I feel like now there’s a possibility that some sense of normalcy back into our lives is within reach,” said Terry Hula, a House Street resident who has been relying on water from a 1,500-gallon drum filled weekly by Wolverine since her well failed last year. “There’s this glimmer of hope that water will come and we won’t have to live this way anymore.”

Nessel spokeswoman Kelly Rossman-McKinney said the details of the arrangement will be made public when it’s approved by the judge. 

Wolverine said in a news release that as a part of the agreement it will complete installation of a filtration system to treat groundwater and excavate contaminants at the tannery site, will place impermeable caps over areas of the House Street site, and will conduct a feasibility study to see what other remediation is necessary at the House Street site. The company has $17 million set aside for future remediation costs, according to its news release.

“One of our company’s values is ‘do the right thing always,’” said Wolverine CEO Blake Krueger, in a recorded audio statement. “The actions announced today reflect our commitment to uphold this value in the years to come.”

The townships estimate it will take at least five years to complete the municipal water extension and neighborhoods with the highest levels of contamination will be the first to receive hookups likely beginning in 2020. Doug Van Essen, attorney for the townships, told Bridge the House Street and Wellington Ridge neighborhoods will likely be first.

Sandy Wynn-Stelt, another House Street resident whose husband died of liver cancer shortly before officials found exorbitant PFAS levels in her water, said the agreement is “a step in the right direction,” but that it’s hard to celebrate without knowing the details of how Wolverine will have to clean up the contamination in the long-term. 

“It’s a start, but let’s face it — it doesn’t undo all the PFAS that I drank,” she said. “It’s Christmas and I’m sitting here as a widow. It doesn’t quite fix that.”

Plus, Wynn-Stelt noted, residents will be required to pay for the water service once it’s in place, which is an added expense they didn’t have when they were able to rely on their private wells. The townships estimate the average family water bill is $21 per month. 

Wynn-Stelt, Hula and hundreds of other families are still involved in individual lawsuits against Wolverine to seek compensation for health and property damages incurred by the contamination. Krueger of Wolverine said in a statement that he expects the settlement with the state will “improve [their] legal position” in these cases.

The company’s litigation against 3M, the Minnesota-based manufacturer of the PFAS-laden product Wolverine used, is ongoing.

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