Plainfield board votes to join lawsuit against Wolverine Worldwide

Township Treasurer Bill Brinkman, Trustee Sue Morrow and Frank Pfaf, Supervisor Bob Homan, Clerk Cathy Postmus, and Trustee Ben Greene. Absent: Trustee Jack Hagedorn.

‘We are the only party that can provide water, we obviously have a stake’


Plainfield Township’s environmental attorney Doug Van Essen urged the township board to let him take action to join the lawsuit the Department of Environmental Quality has against Wolverine Worldwide. “We need to provide PFOS free water to our residents, it is appropriate we be added to the mix,” he stated on Monday, February 26 to the township board.

Van Essen described the township’s liability as unlike a traffic accident, where the injuries are immediate and apparent. Among other grievances the township has against Wolverine Worldwide and Waste Management over contamination within the township and the township’s water system, is the loss of Versluis Lake as a well field.

Plainfield Township’s environmental attorney Doug Van Essen

“In a traffic accident, litigation happens right away, the damages happen right away. In Versluis, damages take time and we may be forced to sue before we are ready, before you know your liability.” He said implementation of a tolling agreement allows the township to stake a claim for future action, when the cost of damages might be better known.

“A tolling agreement freezes time,” he said. The township is currently exploring for a new well field without contaminations of PFOS from waste associated with Wolverine shoe and boot production from decades ago. Contamination with former dumps on East Beltline and on Boulder Creek Golf Course property are considered sources of contamination of Versluis Lake, although investigations by the DEQ are ongoing.

“As time unfolds here we will know more about Boulder Creek, the DEQ will do more investigation as it pertains to Versluis,” Van Essen told the board. He said the intervention into the DEQ lawsuit against Wolverine Worldwide protects the township’s interest in the relief provided by Wolverine.

The township specifically does have an interest in relief eventually provided by Wolverine as the only party that can provide water to the residents of the township and other citizens on the township’s water system.

“The question is, does the DEQ represent our interests?” Van Essen stated. “No, they do not. They may overlap, but they are invested in the environmental.” He said the DEQ is not intimately aware of the township’s water system, the financial aspects of the system.

“Only Plainfield Township can adequately represent this.”

Van Essen said he has reached out to both the DEQ and Wolverine regarding joining the suit, and Wolverine was prompt in welcoming the township to the proceedings. The DEQ, however, did not yet respond.

He said the DEQ initiated the lawsuit on January 10 of this year. “If the DEQ is working on that, it’s time for Plainfield Township to hear from the DEQ. We need to be at that table.”

“It’s time for us to recognize this is going to be resolved in federal court, we need to be involved.” He also urged the board to act as the only elected officials involved in this dispute. “You are the only public officials elected to represent this group.”

In addition, he asked the board to allow him to approach Algoma Township to also participate in the lawsuit as customers of Plainfield Township’s municipal water system.

“This will affect these two townships, not just in the near future, but for decades to come. We are a necessary party, we have a right to be there. I am also asking you to direct me to invite Algoma Township to join us. It is entirely appropriate that Algoma Township be represented in this lawsuit.”

Van Essen said as a practical matter, joining the lawsuit is more efficient than to initiate its own lawsuit to recover damages. “We could bond the $25 million and then go after it from Wolverine,” he described. “This is more cost effective. If we don’t join, the die may already be cast by the federal judge.”

Township Supervisor Bob Homan asked if the township would still be moving ahead with steps to attain the $25 million bond.

“In terms of practical answers, it’s not happening,” said Van Essen. “Even in the most optimistic outcome, we will have missed the 2018 construction season. It is unlikely we would have a consent decree in place in time to construct in 2018.”

Township Superintendent Cameron VanWyngarden told the board that engineering is already and still underway for improvements to the water system, regardless of the status of the bond or lawsuit.

Trustee Ben Greene said it is disappointing that the township will be unable, this year, to provide water to citizens affected by PFAS contamination in their well water. “We don’t want to miss the opportunity to do this the right way.

Trustee Frank Pfaf stated that if the DEQ does not recognize Plainfield Township’s interest in the lawsuit, the township will still be able to ask the federal judge to involve the municipality in the suit. Van Essen said that is correct.

“My laser like focus is on the municipal systems and filters,” said Van Essen. “In the long term we are going to need to look at more permanent changes in our plant. It is entirely appropriate we be before the federal judge. We need to provide PFOS free water to our residents, it is appropriate we be added to the mix.”

Pfaf stated, “We shouldn’t have to be burdened by the cost (of improvements to the system). That should be Wolverine and Waste Management.”

Trustee Sue Morrow asked what would be the role of Algoma Township in the suit. “Will we be together?”

“Yes. I think of myself as not just representing Plainfield Township, but the whole water system.”

Township Treasurer Bill Brinkman asked about the company 3M that manufactured PFOS products decades ago. “Last week 3M lost a suit in Minnesota for $858 million. Will they be brought in.”

Van Essen said, in correction, that 3M voluntarily paid $385 million in order to avoid going to court. He said he is sure Wolverine and 3M are working through who is ultimately responsible for the contamination.

“We’ll let those two armies battle that out. I don’t want to fight that battle,” Van Essen stated. “Wolverine may very well bring 3M in.” The board voted unanimously for Van Essen to move ahead with involvement in the lawsuit. Township Superintendent Bob Homan stated, “Well, that was kind of momentous.”