ROCKFORD — Helen Fiser stepped up to a microphone in the Rockford High School auditorium Monday night. On the stage before her was a collection of state officials, including Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, listening closely.
“Unless I fell asleep some time in reading this thing, I find nothing about medical monitoring in perpetuity,” she said, referencing the 112-page document detailing the state’s proposed legal settlement with Wolverine World Wide, the shoe manufacturer that tainted local drinking water beginning in the mid-1950s with toxic chemicals known as PFAS.
“These are forever chemicals, it is a death sentence,” Fiser said. “There has to be some type of medical monitoring” to track PFAS’ effect on residents’ health.
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Fiser is the citizens’ association coordinator at the nearby Spring Valley Mobile Home Park, which she’d like to be included in the settlement. She was one of more than 100 area residents who attended the public hearing to tell the state how it can better hold Wolverine accountable for its contamination.
Those who spoke seemed grateful the state was working to address their concerns, but a tenor of anxiety ran through the speeches of residents, whose lives have been in limbo since they were alerted to PFAS in their drinking water more than two years ago.
The collection of heat- and water-resistant chemicals has been found in dozens of groundwater sites across Michigan and now constitutes the state’s most widespread chemical contamination in decades.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel on Monday called the agreement “pretty extensive” and said she’s committed to ensuring Wolverine abides by its commitment. (Bridge photo by Riley Beggin)
The past two years have been laced with anxiety for Rockford and Belmont-area residents, many of whom question the future of their health, property values and local environment.
The proposed agreement with Wolverine would begin to address that, state officials said. The company will pay $69.5 million to extend municipal water lines to more than 1,000 residents with some of the highest concentrations of PFAS in the wells they relied on for drinking water. Wolverine also must continue to operate filtration systems for other homes with elevated PFAS, continue sampling and monitoring local wells, study remediation options and propose a plan to clean up the sites.
“I don’t know how it feels to be any of you right now,” Nessel told the audience. “I don’t know what it’s like when you first find out there’s a problem, when you have the horror of finding out you test positive, or to find you have 60 times the normal level in your blood.
“But I can promise you this: We will be as aggressive as possible” in enforcing the agreement, she said. Nessel was joined by other officials from the Attorney General’s office along with staff from the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.
Some residents expressed frustration over how their property was, or was not, affected by the agreement. Others said they were appreciative of the speed of the settlement, a deal that may have been lightning-paced in the world of environmental litigation but painfully slow for residents impacted by the chemicals.
A state environmental employee explains to a resident which areas near Rockford and Belmont will be included in a settlement agreement at a public hearing held Monday at Rockford High School. (Bridge photo by Riley Beggin)
Many, like Fiser, were concerned the deal wouldn’t include long-term health testing for people who have been affected. Some said they feared the public would be blocked out of future decision-making under a portion of the agreement that makes public feedback required only if EGLE “determines that there is significant public interest.” And still others worried that those who own properties outside the boundaries of the agreement may have PFAS in their water but won’t receive a municipal water hookup.
“I think it’s a great thing for the people who are included, I think it’s wonderful,” said Marilyn Anderson. She said her home once tested positive for PFAS levels of 900 parts per trillion, though they have since tested lower and aren’t included in the settlement.
“But what are they going to do for the people who are not in it?” Anderson asked. “And who will pay for that?”
Instead of offering immediate answers to questions, the Attorney General’s office said it will issue an advisory responding to resident concerns before submitting a final version of the settlement agreement to the court.
Officials said they expected some of that feedback at the Monday hearing and they’re continuing to investigate other affected areas, including those nearby where the responsible party hasn’t yet been identified and at sites around the state where other companies or the U.S. Air Force appear responsible for the contamination.
Abigail Hendershott, remediation division district supervisor with EGLE, moderates resident comments as Attorney General Dana Nessel and other state officials listen. (Bridge photo by Riley Beggin)
“We don’t want to minimize anybody’s risks, but we’ve tried to account for all of those areas that were hardest hit,” Abigail Hendershott, remediation division district supervisor with EGLE told Bridge Magazine afterward.
The area has a complicated relationship with Wolverine, a multibillion-dollar company and the largest employer in town that left a massive trail of long-lasting toxic chemicals in the groundwater most residents used for drinking, as they relied on private wells. The Rockford Chamber of Commerce recently dubbed it the “business of the year,” even as hundreds of area residents have lawsuits pending against it. Those individual suits won’t be affected by the settlement, Nessel said.
“This is about as airtight as a Ziploc, and we all know those always break in your purse at the worst moments. None of us are doing the happy dance right now.”
-- Sandy Wynn-Stelt, an affected resident
In Michigan’s last widespread contamination crisis — the PBB crisis of the 1970s — the responsible corporation managed to avoid paying for major contamination as long-term costs outpaced its liability. Sandy Wynn-Stelt, an affected resident who has become a leading community activist advocating for cleanup, said she and her neighbors will be watching to ensure the job gets done.
“This is about as airtight as a Ziploc, and we all know those always break in your purse at the worst moments. None of us are doing the happy dance right now,” she said. “Most of us, though, feel we’re making steps in the right direction.”