Residents grill representatives for six hours about water safety near Wolverine Worldwide tannery dump site

Representatives from Michigan Dept. of Health and Human Services, Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality, the Kent County Health Department, Plainfield Township and Wolverine Worldwide addressed questions from residents at the Sept 12. meeting

Meetings began at 4:30, questions continued until 10:30 p.m.

By BETH ALTENA

 

Christina Bush, a toxicologist for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services was one of the speakers at a marathon meeting held in response to growing concerns over water safety after testing found contaminants in wells around a former House Street tannery dump in Belmont. She joined representatives from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the Kent County Health Department, Plainfield Township and Wolverine Worldwide Tuesday, September 12 at the Fine Arts Auditorium at Rockford High School.

Steve Kelso of the Kent County Health Department, introduced speakers beginning at 6 p.m. for a town hall meeting that filled the auditorium. Previously, from 4:30 p.m., residents were able to meet with representatives one on one to talk about concerns.

He started the town hall portion of the meeting by setting guidelines of the evening’s conversation. “We are here to talk about the House Street site, not the eclipse, not Taylor Swift. We are going to keep it on topic to get answers from this panel who have agreed to be here.”

Kelso said he would keep the meeting going until everyone’s questions were answered, even if it was until 10:30 p.m. (which it was). A speaker from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality began, saying a group of concerned citizens brought that site and others to the attention of the DEQ and asked for testing. Testing then yielded no significant results, but on June 5 tests for PFOA and PFOS at a nearby armory did test for the chemicals at levels exceeding health guidelines.

Exploration of the former Wolverine Worldwide dump site turned up leather scraps and drum remnants. The site, purchased by Wolverine in 1964 is located at 1855 House Street, west of US 131, was operated under state guidelines legally from 1965 until 1970.

In July test results from residential wells came back with higher than the recommended guideline of 70 parts per trillion (ppt). In August Wolverine began dispersing bottled water, water filters and Meijer gift cards for purchase of more bottled water to residents in the neighborhood.

The DEQ spokesman said they had heard complaints about why testing has taken so long and described the challenges of testing for these PFOS and PFOA compounds, which are common in household items such as Gortex, Teflon, deodorant, make up, lotion and other common products. It is not absorbable through the skin. She said testing consists of a team of two people, one of which must go through a cleansing process prior to collecting samples. This “clean hands” person cannot wear cosmetics, sunscreen, bug spray, deodorant, eat fast food, have fabric softener on clothing or otherwise be exposed to sources of these chemicals prior to collecting samples.

She said the first two rounds of testing for volatile metals and other toxins yielded results below levels of concern and it wasn’t until the third round of tests that the PFOS and PFOA levels were discovered. The tests have to be sent to very specialized labs, of which few exist, that are able to detect the parts per trillion. She said the levels identified are as minute as one drop of detergent in a string of rail road cars of water that would stretch ten miles long.

The next speaker was Christopher Hufnagel, Senior Vice President of Strategy for Wolverine Worldwide. He said the company is committed to the process and to the residents of dealing with the contamination. He described Wolverine as being headquartered here since 1883 with employees and their families living here. He said the 75 acre parcel was used since the mid 1960s for disposal, including scraps from the downtown Rockford tannery which produced Hushpuppies Shoes. The PFOA and PFOS chemicals were used, among other applications, in waterproofing products, or Scotchguard. After use as a dump ceased in 1970s, the property has been used as a Christmas tree farm.

A speaker from Rose & Westra, a consulting group working for Wolverine, also offered an example of the levels of the chemical parts per trillion. He said if the population of the planet is 7.5 billion, the amounts of the chemicals at 70 ppt would be less than one percent of the people on Earth. He called it a mind boggling figure.

“We can’t sample at a moment’s notice, it takes a while to do it well.” He said Wolverine responded on August 10 by beginning to hand out water, filters and gift cards to residents of the area. He said of 38 samples taken so far, results were back for 35 of them. Ten had PFOAs greater than Environmental Protection Agency guidelines, 16 had concentrations lower than guidelines and nine wells had no levels of the contaminants.

Kelso wrapped up the comments at that point. “That’s the background. You want to know what’s in the water and what are the health affects. That’s what I’d want to know.”

Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Toxicologist Chris Bush said the PFOA and PFOS are “emergent” toxins that were only identified as health hazards in 2015. “I’ve been involved in a couple of these sites in the last few years,” she said. “There’s going to be more.”

She said health problems associated with the chemicals are mostly known through a study in Ohio and West Virginia where the substance was in the drinking water of a population of 65,000. Six concerns were identified through this study, which are kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, hypertension during pregnancy, thyroid issues and cholesterol issues.

“Stronger evidence is from animal testing,” she stated. She said testing shows a link between exposure, but not necessarily that the substance was the cause of health issues.

PFOA concern is testing of mice was delayed ossification of bone and PFOS in rat studies showed decreased birth weight in pups. “Decreased birth weight can lead to other affects. For other PFOAs, there is just not enough know about it. Overtime there might be more information. This may be the way it began for other chemicals we know about.”

She said the EPA lifetime health advisory is concerned with the protection of fetuses and of adults for cancer. She said in Michigan the advisory was that the combined amount of PFOA and PFOS should not be more than 70 ppt, although other states have different standards. “Different states might have chosen different studies to set guidelines.”

The value of blood testing is limited, and cannot tell an individual if there are future conditions due to the chemical.She said past levels of PFOAs in the United States have been much higher than currently because the chemicals have been phased out over time.

Plainfield Township Representatives

Plainfield Township Superintendent Cameron VanWyngarden spoke to address the safety of the public water system in the township. The contamination is not from public water, but limited to households outside of that system. He said he was there to answer questions about municipal water service. The meeting was then opened up to questions from the audience.

Will the wells be retested, the first person asked, since the contaminant is cumulative. From Chris from Wolverine was the answer, some have already been retested, some may not. Will my property taxes go downhill, will this affect my property value.

From the DEQ, it depends what happens down the road, over the next two to three years. “Long term we need to know the extent of the plume and contamination.”

If wells test negative now, will the contamination continue to creep and show up later? That is uncertain.

We live in a  neighborhood of twenty houses. Three have been tested and been negative. Is that enough?

From the DEQ, “We need to have vertical screening of well depth. Groundwater exists in aquifers and there may be several in any given area.”  From the questioner. “Will someone explain that to me because as an average homeowner I don’t understand any of what you just said.”

The DEQ representative said as each new piece of data is added to the body of knowledge, the understanding of the extent of the contamination will grow.

Question: “We live in an affected area and you haven’t tested our home yet, you need to speed it up. It’s not in my interest to trust you, you are not a charity, you are motivated by the bottom line. Are there other chemicals that haven’t been mentioned? This is Flint, this is Love Canal. If Wolverine said it didn’t know about this chemical, it should have known.” He also wanted to know when homeowners would be given information about their well tests.

Rose & Westra said the testing is done under DEQ supervision, the information goes first to the homeowner and then to the DEQ.

The MDHHS representative said she anticipates Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and said each homeowner’s testing information is their private information and is not going to be released. She said the process of being involved in this situation is already stressful to everyone. She noted other contaminates that are being tested for include chromium and other metals.

Are area lakes and ponds safe? If people take fish to eat or swim in the ponds, is that dangerous. Bush noted the substances in question are not absorbable by the skin in significant levels. “What we will do back at the State Department is put together a fact sheet.

In regards to fish and fish monitoring, many lake surface bodies are shallow and fish testing may take place on some of the lakes.”

Wolverine’s Hufnagel reiterated the timeline of response to this situation, stating that testing of eight wells in April came back negative for the PFLO and PFLA substances and it wasn’t until the Armory tests came back at elevated levels that additional testing was prompted. The testing after the Armory results included 28 more home well tests which have now been increased to 70. “Responding quickly is of paramount importance.”

The MDEQ said enforcement is a tool to use in sites like this, but the main goal is safe drinking water. “We come up with the most collaborative way to accomplish that.” In this case, that means working with Wolverine. “We are holding Wolverine Worldwide accountable and will continue to do so.” “We are concerned about metals and did test for that.”

Wolverine’s Hufnagel stated, “We are committed to you having confidence in your drinking water.” He said people have brought up the leather scraps at the tannery site and the plan is to clean those up this fall when the vegetation recedes. “I would love to have a conversation about the tannery, but this is probably not the forum for that.”

How many bad wells will it take before residents around House Street can have city water? What’s the threshold for that and who will pay for it?

From Wolverine, “On August 8 we received the sample results and we were at Meijer that morning buying drinking water. We know that’s short term. As we stand today, Wolverine isn’t taking anything off the table. We talk about health issues, but we also recognize the anxiety. We know that’s part of this.”

Cameron VanWyngarden said he’s had engineers looking at extending municipal water to the area. “We have water nearby, we are looking at costs and how quick we can get it there.”

Kelso asked how many people have well water by a show of hands, and how many of those want to keep their well water. “I’m not surprised,” he said. “I had well water too and I loved mine, too.”

Residents speak to the panel during the Q&A portion of the Town Hall Meeting

A resident asked about the “clean hands” portion of the discussion and wanted to know if these substances can be absorbed through the skin. Bush stated that the substances are common, they are Gortex, Teflon, Stainmaster. “All of those are this stuff. It is pervasive in our lives.”

At the time of tannery disposal on the site from 1966 to 1970, what was 3M’s (the company who made the product) recommendation for disposal? Did Wolverine have any suspicions at the time of the danger?

Hufnagel: When this was done the site was fully license and under state supervision. It was the accepted best practice.

“Do PFOAs linger in your body or work their way out?”

MHHSD Bush: Several of the compounds in this family have a half life of several years. There is no treatment to remove them. The goal is to stop exposure, in this case, the drinking water.

Are the schools being tested? Cameron VanWyngarden: All the schools in the area are on municipal water.

Will this affect home values and if you sell your home is it mandated that you disclose this?

Kelso: We can’t answer that, we’d need a realtor or a real estate attorney to answer that.

Is leaving scrap leather along the river part of being in accordance?

Hufnagel: It shouldn’t happen. Your point is well taken and we will clean it up.

Can we have our water tested ourselves? How about blood testing. I called my physician and no one in this area will eat that. Where do I send blood to be tested and will you pay for that?

Hufnagel: We share your concern. As far as the decision to test, my house is just outside the line. We are working with the DEQ on where to test. It may be in the fourth phase of testing. We are taking names of people outside the testing area.

MDHHS Bush: The Health Department does not have grounds to do syrum testing. It›s been shown not to be helpful. If test come back low, it doesn’t really reassure people. Tests show the links to prognosis is no different than for a person without testing. I understand you want the reassurance, but it isn’t helpful.

I have two small kids who bathe in the water. It is impossible for them not to drink it. Are there whole house filters available?

MDHHS Bush: An occasional gulp of water might be a quarter of a cup or so. Or out in the pool that was filled from the well. I would not expect that to be a serious exposure.

People asked about study and test results and Kelso said authorities are looking for a site to compile all relevant information for everyone to access.

A resident asked about a levels score of low, medium or excessive regarding the levels of the chemicals.

MDHHS Bush: That was a suggestion by me. She defined low as less than 10 ppt, medium as 11 to 69 ppt and excessive as 70 ppt or higher. In an area where the plume doesn’t extend, low levels are probably due to these chemicals being so pervasive in our lives. It was probably from water water, mopping floors or washing Gortex.

Is there a way to slow or stop the spread of these chemicals? No. There is no remedial activity to stop or remove the material. It doesn’t break down, which is what makes it such great water repellent.

KKHD Kelso: You could take up all the dirt and remove it and you still wouldn’t get rid of it (chemicals).

MDEQ: You can’t get rid of it. You can install filters or put in deeper wells.

My well tested positive. Why didn’t you test it sooner? Everyone knows water flows to the Grand River why was it mid April to mid July before anyone on House Street was notified?

WWW: Wolverine was notified in March. The tests came back in April. We developed a plan with the DEQ to find homes to test. The first scores were all below levels of concern.

There is corn growing under power lines on the property. Doesn’t that seem like a bad idea to grow corn on a dump?

The property hasn’t been used by Wolverine in years. Hunting rights for the land has been auctioned off with proceeds going to charity.

I have a 40 by 50 foot garden, what about watering my garden with the water?

MDHHS Bush: Research with gardening for PFAS or watering with PFAS show a small uptake. Uptake tends to be a smaller compound that passes through the body quickly. Tests in Minnesota (home to 3M) show concentration into vegetables, root, fleshy or leafy, are not of concentrations to cause concern.

Where did Wolverine dump materials before buying the House Street property in 1964? Did Wolverine dump before that?

WWW Hufnagel: Yes, there are some other facilities.

The meeting continued for the next hour and a half until breaking up at 10:30 p.m.