Wolverine Worldwide received a legal citation from Michigan environmental regulators for delaying the launch of a system to remove contaminated groundwater entering the Rogue River where the company’s Rockford shoe leather tannery once was.
The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) issued the Sweaty Betty owner the violation notice after the company failed to begin construction in accordance with an approved schedule on a treatment system that would extract the per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, from the river, as reported by Michigan Live. The so-called “forever chemicals” have been linked to hormone disruption, organ damage and certain cancers.
However, Wolverine stated that the EGLE violation was, in fact, due to failing to meet a milestone pertaining to the construction and implementation of the system, which has been under construction and continues to undergo updates as needed. Wolverine also claimed that the system is not intended to remove PFAS, but rather prevent the flow of groundwater into the river.
In November 2019, the 139-year-old footwear and clothing company began a short-term cleanup at the Wolverine Tannery and the House Street Disposal sites in Kent County. This short-term cleanup, or time-critical removal action, resulted from a settlement agreement between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Merrell parent, separate from the 2020 EGLE consent decree. The settlement stated that Wolverine must undertake such steps necessary to abate an alleged imminent and substantial endangerment to human health and the environment posed by the disposal of wastes containing PFAS in certain areas in Kent County, Mich. The drinking water contamination in Kent County is tied to this “forever chemical” and can be traced to sludge waste from the old tannery, which began using 3M Scotchgard in 1958.
Essentially, Wolverine used the now-discontinued durable water repellent on leather at its tannery and legally dumped the waste throughout northern Kent County in a state-licensed landfill. The tannery stopped operations in 2009 and was demolished by 2011, but its effects are lasting. In September, Wolverine and 3M voluntarily $54 million to Michigan property owners harmed by the PFAS contamination under a proposed settlement in a class action lawsuit. While the homeowner claims that they were harmed, this allegation has not been proven, Wolverine said.
While the EPA-ordered work did not involve any PFAS cleanup, it did remove other hazardous contaminants such as chromium and mercury. So though the company fulfilled its requirements of the EPA settlement with the short-term cleanup, Wolverine has yet to finalize the design for a granular activated carbon (GAC) and resin system that would extract polluted groundwater, filter it, and discharge it back to the river near the company’s Footwear Depot store, according to Michigan Live. Wolverine reiterated that this interceptor system falls under the consent decree under the regulation of the EGLE, which is separate from the EPA.
Under the terms in the work plan, Wolverine was supposed to begin treatment construction in September after EGLE approved a work plan in March. “Wolverine could have met the September deadline, but instead of rush through with a system that did not function as intended, we informed EGLE we would be revisiting the design in order to have a satisfactory system the first time through,” Wolverine said.
“The schedules are serious. They are bound by the consent decree,” Karen Vorce, EGLE remediation division district supervisor in Grand Rapids, told Michigan Live. “If they don’t think they’re going to meet those schedules, they have to let us know ahead of time and get approval.”
In 2018, Wolverine committed up to $45 million to speed up its supply chain and address groundwater issues. So what happened? Well, Wolverine stated the company has a lengthy history of groundwater sampling, environmental testing and remediation, municipal water funding, and more commitments for the future. This history is allegedly documented on its website, WeAreWolverine.com.
But activists don’t necessarily agree that enough has been done.
“Every day that passes is another day that the [PFAS] contamination is discharging to the Rogue River without being impeded,” Vorce said.
Vorce said Wolverine has until Dec. 1 to submit a new plan incorporating proposed design changes. If that doesn’t happen, Michigan could pursue civil fines in court. According to EGLE, Wolverine wants to redesign the system to include more extraction wells and a trench to intercept shallow groundwater. And these proposed changes? They’re pretty similar to the ones that EGLE has been recommending for years.
“We are submitting design changes because testing conducted over the summer indicated we needed to update our system to capture enough groundwater,” Wolverine said, further purporting that these design changes could not have been known before doing the pump tests and that there is no “factual basis” on the claim that EGLE has made such similar recommendations.
“Wolverine has continued to do the bare minimum that they are required to do,” Elaine Sterrett Isely, deputy director at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC), said. “They’re not stepping up. They’re not helping the community.”
Editor’s note: This article was updated on Nov. 4, 2022 to reflect Wolverine’s clarifications.