Source: Grand Rapids Press (MI), November 30, 2017
Posted on: http://www.advisen.com
The first of what’s expected to be many lawsuits has been filed against Wolverine World Wide, alleging the company turned a blind eye to an old toxic dump that has subsequently made people sick and hurt property values.
Three complaints were filed against the company in Kent County Circuit Court on Tuesday, Nov. 28 and attorneys representing homeowners with drinking water contaminated by Wolverine’s tannery waste chemicals say there are more to come.
The first plaintiffs to file against Wolverine are Theodore Ryfiak, Melvin and Marlene Nylaan, and Michael and Laura Metz, all of Belmont. Each are seeking a jury trial.
Aaron Phelps, a partner at Varnum Law, said the firm anticipates filing more than 50 similar cases against Wolverine in the coming weeks.
Varnum represents more than 120 clients so far affected by per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances named PFAS (or PFCs) in 3M Scotchgard that Wolverine used for decades to make Hush Puppies shoes at the former Rockford tannery.
Detroit and Chicago area firms are also signing local clients.
Varnum’s 80-plus page filings seek unspecified monetary damages and cleanup of the now-infamous landfill at 1855 House Street NE in Belmont. The forgotten 1960s-era sludge dump site’s rediscovery this year has sparked an expanding investigation into Wolverine’s waste disposal around the northern Grand Rapids suburbs.
Wolverine released a statement Wednesday morning stating that the company does not comment on ongoing or potential litigation.
The four-count suit alleges Wolverine violated the Part 201 of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act by, among other things, failing to take reasonable precautions against foreseeable outcomes like groundwater contamination from an unlined sludge dump entering the drinking water of nearby residents.
Wolverine also violated the Michigan Environmental Protection Act by knowingly polluting groundwater when it put hazardous substances like PFAS arsenic, chromium and mercury, as well as 55-gallon waste drums, leather scraps and other tannery debris onto bare ground on and around the House Street dump, the suit alleges.
“We’ve had a state statute for decades prior to their dumping that prohibited any sort of dumping that polluted waters of the state, which may be groundwater of the state,” Phelps said. “It’s one thing to put an old washing machine in a field somewhere, and another to put liquid tannery waste into unlined pits.”
“That’s been against the law for nearly 100 years.”
Wolverine also violated local laws, the suits allege, by dumping on House Street after Plainfield Township passed a zoning ordinance in 1963 outlawing such disposal. Tensions between the company, township officials and neighbors resulted in a 1965 lawsuit that ended with a settlement allowing Wolverine to continue using the dump.
The dump was illegal for a year after Public Act 87 became effective in June 1965 and Wolverine obtained a disposal license in June 1966, the filings allege.
Wolverine knew the site was hazardous back in the 1970s but did nothing to ensure safety of nearby properties, the filings allege, even after 3M told the company during a meeting in 1999 that Scotchgard contained compounds that persisted in the environment and exposure could occur through use and disposal.
The suits allege Wolverine lied to separate property owners who called the company to ask if sludge was ever dumped at House Street and if there were safety issues, and only took the proper steps to investigate wells to the south after the Belmont Armory found PFAS in May — months after the first well testing occurred northeast of the dump.
Phelps said the forthcoming suits will vary between health and property value claims. Varnum represents some clients who bought property just prior to the dump investigation becoming public and are at less risk for illness than neighbors who were drinking well water near the dump site for many years.
Where wells are testing positive for PFAS — “particularly homes where residents have lived there a long time — you do see a lot of serious health issues,” Phelps said. “There are cancers, thyroid disease, tumors, etc.”
“You see all of that in the people we’ve encountered the last few months.”
He expects the bulk of cases to be filed in the next two months.