Barrels of apparent tannery waste littered ravines outside the Wolverine tannery dump. (Courtesy of Varnum Law)
The sequence of events that led to the discovery of polluted well water in northern Kent County, and Wolverine Worldwide’s response:
1939 – The Wolverine Shoe and Tanning Company begins dumping tannery waste on company land on House Street, southwest of Rockford in northern Kent County. At the time, such waste disposal was not illegal.
1956 – Minnesota-based 3M begins sales of Scotchgard, a stain and water repellent discovered by accident by 3M scientists.
1958 – Wolverine, later named Wolverine Worldwide, introduces Hush Puppies, a casual shoe that was the foundation for the firm’s success. Scotchgard is a key leather additive to the popular shoe; it contains a compound known as PFOS.
1970 - Wolverine stops using the dump at the House Street site.
1984 – 3M tests in an Alabama plant find rising levels of PFOS in plant workers. At the time, little was known about the possible human health effects of the chemical, but questions were raised. “We must view this present trend with serious concern,” a company official says.
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1997 – 3M finds the presence of PFOS in blood banks around the world. A few years later, trace amounts of PFOS are found in mammals, birds and fish from around world, including polar bears, river dolphins in India and turtles in Mississippi.
2000 – 3M submits tests to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in which monkeys given high doses of PFOS died. An EPA official states in a memo that PFOS “appears to combine Persistence, Bioaccumulation and Toxicity properties to an extraordinary degree.”
May 16, 2000 – 3M announces LINK to “3M 2000 release” in folder it is phasing out production of “perfluorooctanyl chemistry” (PFOS) in Scotchgard by year’s end and “will work with customers to accomplish a smooth transition.” A few days later, the EPA says it pressured 3M to make the change, based on 3M’s own tests showing potential health risks.
2006 – The European Union orders the phaseout of PFOS and related chemicals for most uses.
2009 – The EPA issues provisional health advisories for PFOS and a similar compound, PFOA, in U.S. drinking water.
2013 – State health officials find elevated levels of PFOS in fish in Rogue River in Rockford.
2015 – The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services issues an advisory for eating fish above a dam impoundment in Rockford.
2016 – The EPA issues drinking water standards for PFOS and a related chemical, setting safe limit at 70 parts per trillion.
January 17, 2017 – Richard Rediske, an environmental chemist at Grand Valley State University, sends memo to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality about Wolverine and PFOS: “Wastes disposed on site, residuals from spills, production wastes disposed of offsite in landfills, local groundwater, scrap leather buried on site all have the potential to contain PFOS.”
April 2017 – Wolverine tests a few wells on the northeast side of the House Street dump. It is the first time the company tested for PFOS near the dump site.
May 30, 2017 – Tests at the Michigan Army National Guard’s Belmont Armory about a half-mile from the dump site exceed the federal safety limit at nearly 100 ppt. Wolverine expands its test zone.
August 2017 – House Street resident Sandy Wynn-Stelt is told by state officials her well water tested at 27,600 ppt – nearly 400 times the safety limit. A later test was 540 times the limit. Wynn and neighbors find old waste barrels in ravines across from the dump.
August 23, 2017 – Wolverine issues a statement that it did not learn PFOS was in Scotchgard until fall 2016.
October 2017 – Plainfield Township lays out plans to extend water lines to affected residents, a project that could cost $8 million.
October 9, 2017 – Wolverine puts out statement saying it is now "providing whole-house water filtration systems to homeowners whose wells have tested over the EPA-advisory level for drinking water." A few days later, the company agrees to give bottled water to a middle school near the dump site.
Oct. 13, 2017 – Grand Rapids branch of Varnum Law sends letter to Wolverine, signaling its intent to sue on behalf of dozens of residents. “Wolverine turned a blind eye to the House Street dump,” the letter argues. “It took acts of concerned citizens to prompt any action.”
Nov. 3, 2017 – A 3M lawyer disputes Wolverine’s claim that it did not find out about PFOS presence in Scotchgard, and its potential dangers, until 2016. The lawyer provides Bridge a letter that 3M sent to a Wolverine executive in 1999 detailing a meeting it held that year with Wolverine officials in Rockford noting concerns about PFOS in Scotchgard.
Nov. 4, 2017 – Wolverine issues a statement which acknowledges it was “known and it was widely publicized” that PFOS was in Scotchgard, but argues that the 1999 warning from 3M had downplayed the dangers of PFOS to human health.