Source: https://www.mlive.com, March 25, 2019
By: Garret Ellison
Under the topsoil at the 15-acre site where Wolverine World Wide spent a hundred years using vast amounts of chemicals to convert animal hides into leather, high levels of volatile contaminants like vinyl chloride and trichloroethylene can be found.
Toxic metals like mercury, chromium and lead are confirmed at high levels in the groundwater and sediment in the adjacent Rogue River, including at the spot where people regularly launch canoes and kayaks alongside the heavily-used White Pine Trail.
Extremely high levels of PFAS are bleeding into the river.
The findings are detailed in a new report submitted in January to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which was obtained by MLive through the Freedom of Information Act. The report is the first comprehensive accounting of contamination at Wolverine’s former tannery, which was demolished nine years ago with minimal pollution testing.
State and federal regulators are expected to share highlights from the report during a 6 p.m. townhall meeting Tuesday evening in the Fine Arts Auditorium at Rockford High School.
The report clarifies the extensive contamination under and around the tannery site, but does not delve into future cleanup actions, which regulators say have been proposed by Wolverine but which are still under evaluation because health authorities have yet to weigh-in.
The new data comes from a summer of testing at the tannery under the supervision of Jeff Kimble, an on-scene coordinator with the EPA Region 5 office in Chicago.
Kimble approved the report, which was drafted by Wolverine’s environmental consultant, Rose & Westra GZA. He said state and federal toxicologists are assessing the public health risk posed by the contamination and that evaluation will take a few months to complete.
Kimble said that testing didn’t uncover contamination levels that warrant emergency removal action, but it’s nonetheless likely that some actual site work to reduce the exposure risk posed by possible contact with contaminated water, soil and sediment may be needed this year.
Whether that work involves removing contaminated soil or sediment, adding fencing to keep people away from dangerous areas, or some kind of site capping with clay or additional topsoil is still being determined. Proximity to the White Pine Trail and the nearby recreational areas on the river is a complicating factor, he said.
“Yes, there’s stuff there that’s not an emergency risk, but there’s some associated risks we don’t want to leave out there for a longer process,” Kimble said.
The report shows several contaminants above state or federal action levels mean to protect against physical human contact or the polluting of surface waters by tainted groundwater.
The report shows high levels of hexavalent chromium, between 60,000 and 90,000 parts-per-billion (ppb), in soils north of Rum Creek alongside the White Pine trail where piles of leather scraps still litter the riverbanks from apparent use as fill during tannery operations.
Nearby, soil under a paved area between the existing Wolverine shoe depot store and the trail is contaminated by lead between 2.5 million and 11 million-ppb. Under the former wastewater treatment plant peninsula, mercury in the soil is between 100,000 and 180,000-pbb, which is well above the EPA regional removal level.
In groundwater, hexavalent chromium under the former tannery building footprint tested between 21 and 40-pbb. A sample of chloride in the groundwater behind the post office, which abuts the southern property boundary, reached 9.7 million-ppb.
Much of the site groundwater shows high levels of PFAS, a family of chemicals that Wolverine used in 3M Scotchgard to waterproof shoe leather. The chemicals were detected in virtually all samples taken. In areas along the river south of Rum Creek, Total PFAS levels in the groundwater reach 451,000 parts-per-trillion (ppt).
Wolverine’s use of PFAS at the tannery and disposal in sludge waste dumps around the Rockford and Belmont area have contaminated many local drinking water wells. That 2017 discovery helped spark Michigan’s recent focus on finding PFAS contamination statewide.
In the Rogue River, a surface water sample next to the site tested at 1,200-ppt for the individual PFAS compound PFOS, which was once the key ingredient in Scotchgard. That exceeds the state’s enforceable PFOS limit of 12-ppt in surface water by 100 times.
In river sediment by the kayak launch, testing found arsenic at 100,000-ppb, vanadium at 32,000-ppb, mercury at 30,000-ppb, hexavalent chromium at 8,100-ppb and cyanide at 600-ppb. High levels of volatile compounds like MEK, acetone, carbon disulfide and methelyne chloride were also found in river sediment.
Lead in Rum Creek sediment tested at 110,000-ppb.
Aside from chemicals, other evidence of the tannery’s impact on the river were noted in the report. At nine locations downstream of Rum Creek, “hair-like fibers” from decades of shaving animal hides were found at various depths while sediment sampling.
The test results come as no surprise to the group of Rockford citizens who spent years gathering evidence that prompted the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to begin looking for PFAS at the tannery and Wolverine’s dump on House Street in Belmont.
A.J. Birkbeck, an attorney who represents the group, the Concerned Citizens for Responsible Remediation (CCRR), said the test results closely match concern areas the group identified by interviewing former tannery employees and FOIA-requesting documents.
The group originally petitioned for EPA’s involvement in 2011 out of concern that the tannery demolition had disturbed the site and exacerbated contamination entering the river.
Lynn McIntosh, a Rockford activist who spearheaded that effort, said working with the DEQ was “like heaving boulders out of the way” before and after the EPA, bowing to pressure from Wolverine, city and state leaders, left the site under state control in 2012.
McIntosh closely documented the demolition and spoke to former tannery employees who helped her identify problem areas like “the pit,” a 50-foot former maintenance basement area where toxic waste pooled and sometimes overflowed. She said Wolverine avoided pollution scrutiny during demolition by razing the site on its own dime rather than performing testing the state required to get tax incentives.
Aspects of the demolition still raise questions, she argues.
Toward the end of demolition, on Aug. 23, 2011, McIntosh photographed excavators loading contaminated soil and concrete debris from the wastewater plant area into trucks that she followed to the Rusche gravel pit in Algoma Township. She said the pit wasn’t licensed to accept hazardous waste, but her evidence sat for years in the hands of state regulators and never resulted in any enforcement action.
McIntosh and fellow group members did not identify PFAS as a potential problem with the tannery and Wolverine’s dumping for another several years after the complex was demolished.
“When I saw that debris go to an unlicensed gravel pit, I was horrified,” she said. “That’s what kept me going. That is so wrong. How could they get away with that?”
Upon reviewing the new tannery report, McIntosh wasn’t surprised to see high detections of hexavalent chromium in the site groundwater correspond with the location where former workers say Wolverine stored chromium in large tanks inside the tannery complex.
“I feel grateful the EPA has been able to get this data, even if it took 9 years,” she said.
Thad Beard, Rockford city manager, had not seen the new report, but said he’s been getting progress updates on the investigation work. He said the data “validates” concerns expressed by citizens.
Beard said that, despite the environmental scrutiny of late, he’s fielded a few inquiries in the past couple years from potential developers interested in the site, which abuts a bustling downtown district.
“Hopefully, now that data is available, it leads to action that will protect the public and the environment,” Beard said. The city would like to see that “lead to conversation about what the site can be once it’s redeveloped and what is the best long-term use.”
Wolverine declined to comment on any plans or preference for redevelopment at the site. In 2011, the company canceled plans to build a big shoe store on the property.
In a statement to MLive, Wolverine said it is developing a plan to intercept and treat contaminated groundwater before it reaches the river. The company has already installed several extraction wells at the site and expects to begin operation this year.
Wolverine said the granular activated carbon system will treat PFAS and other contaminants in the groundwater. The company did not include those plans in the new report at the direction of EPA, which says it has yet to review or approve them.
“We are currently completing the design and installation of the rest of the system, and expect it will be in place and operating by late summer or early fall,” Wolverine said.
Wolverine said it has proposed adding protective matting and more gravel to the downtown kayak launch. The EPA is also reviewing that proposal. Kimble said it’s too soon to determine next steps at the tannery. The EPA is evaluating both the risk to public health as well as to local ecology, such as fish and wildlife.
“We need to look at all the data and figure out what those levels mean in regards to risk, and also in comparison to our various cleanup levels or triggers for cleanup,” Kimble said.
“We’ll be looking at the data on sediment in the river at access areas and will compare that to advice we’re getting from our health folks,” he said. “Then, we’ll determine if that needs to be addressed this summer or over the longer term.”