How citizen sleuths cracked the Wolverine tannery pollution case

How citizen sleuths cracked the Wolverine tannery pollution case

Source:, June 12, 2019
By: Garret Ellison

Lynn McIntosh wasn’t surprised to see the police officer watching her.

McIntosh was taking samples at the city dam because she worried about contamination where people fished, launched canoes and jumped into a frigid Rogue River every Valentine’s Day for the Sweetheart Splash.

As she snapped photos and filled small bottles with sediment, Rockford officer Jason Bradley watched from his patrol car. A city employee had called police, who, according to the April 3, 2013 report, dispatched him to “observe Lynn’s actions, just for documentation.”

“I’m thinking, ‘I wonder if a police car will show up,’” recalled the Rockford piano teacher and amateur environmental sleuth. “Sure enough, I look around and there’s a car. Wouldn’t you know.”

It wasn’t the first time someone called police or tried to hamper her group’s efforts to document pollution and it wouldn’t be the last.

For nearly a decade, a tenacious a group of concerned citizens led by McIntosh bucked the local current by watchdogging the environmental actions of Wolverine World Wide, a global footwear and apparel company headquartered in Rockford. Their efforts drew sneers, suspicion and other intimidation tactics in a company town proud of its homegrown corporate giant.

Undeterred by small town politics, the group’s efforts finally bore fruit two years ago when they convinced state officials to seek pollution testing near an old tannery dump on House Street in Belmont that Wolverine packed full of sludge waste in the 1960s.

That dump, it turned out, has long been leaching toxic fluorochemicals called PFAS into the groundwater people used for drinking.

On the state of Michigan website, the official Wolverine PFAS investigation timeline begins on Jan. 24, 2017 — the date McIntosh’s group, the Concerned Citizens for Responsible Remediation (CCRR), brought evidence of Wolverine’s fluorochemical use and disposal to regulators at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

The meeting helped launch an investigation into Wolverine’s former waste disposal that discovered multiple dumps where the company cached sludge laden with 3M Scotchgard chemicals. PFAS has been found in the wells at nearly 800 homes inside a 25-square mile contaminated zone stretching across the city of Rockford and parts of Plainfield and Algoma townships.

The pollutants befoul more than just drinking water. The investigation is now jointly overseen by state and the federal authorities. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently ordered signs posted near Wolverine’s former tannery warning people about touching sediments and toxic PFAS surfactant foam in the Rogue River, which is receiving high concentrations from tannery site groundwater. The EPA also wants polluted sediments dug from the river this year.

In the two years since Wolverine’s drinking water contamination was discovered in Belmont, a huge amount of time, energy and money has been spent investigating and responding to the local legacy of Scotchgard disposal. Actual “cleanup” of the type that removes pollution from the ground has barely begun and could take generations. A flood of litigation has ensued and the contamination has irrevocably changed the lives of many who’ve been exposed.

But getting to this point was not inevitable, nor was it entirely the work of authorities. Unearthing the Wolverine contamination took years of dogged sleuthing by the citizens. The group collected samples, tracked down former employees and found important documents detailing Wolverine’s chemical use history, disposal locations and potential contamination — all while fending off regular attempts to hamper, downplay or discredit their efforts.

“If it wasn’t for that group being a thorn in the city’s side, it would have been so easy to sweep this under the rug,” said Jennifer Carney, who, in 2017, found out her drinking water on Chandler Drive in Belmont was contaminated by Wolverine’s House Street dump. “There’s not many people now-a-days who will stick their neck out like that.”

‘Disgruntled residents’ marginalized

Today, CCRR members say evidence and turnover in city leadership have made Rockford officials more receptive to their concerns. Relations weren’t always that way.

In June 2011, the citizens petitioned the EPA to assess the 15-acre tannery site for pollution. The group was concerned that a 100-year-old factory on the banks of the river downtown had been demolished with minimal oversight and contamination testing, allowing Wolverine to claim there was “no known contamination on the property” in a bid for Brownfield redevelopment incentives.

The resulting EPA preliminary site assessment found elevated levels of arsenic, chromium, copper, lead, mercury and zinc in river sediments. Contamination above acceptable human contact levels was found in surface areas around the tannery footprint, which abuts the heavily used White Pine Trail in Rockford next to the river.

The tannery scored high enough to warrant a spot on the federal Superfund list of toxic sites, but the EPA bowed in 2012 to substantial pushback from Wolverine and community leaders who wanted the site kept under a state-led, voluntary environmental cleanup program.

McIntosh’s group wanted the EPA involved after failing to get the DEQ to take stronger oversight during demolition.

But the idea of a Superfund site downtown abhorred city leaders.

“This property will play an important role in the future development and enhancement of downtown Rockford,” late city manager Michael Young wrote in April 2012, requesting the EPA cease its involvement at the tannery. Young wrote that he understood “there are no conditions at the property that present a health threat to the public.”

Young and other Rockford leaders vigorously defended Wolverine and the tannery demolition in letters to regulators and legislators. Disputes bled together about an unrelated condo development called Tamarack Runthat McIntosh and her husband, Michael, were opposing. Back then, the second ‘R’ in CCRR stood for “Redevelopment,” not remediation. The group was painted as anti-economic development.

In a November 2012 letter, former city mayor and local attorney Neil Blakeslee wrote to then-DEQ director Dan Wyant that “the community has grown weary of these unwarranted attacks and we felt it important that you begin to hear the real facts surrounding these properties.”

A year prior, on November 2011, Blakeslee and several city council members sent Wolverine CEO Blake Krueger a letter criticizing the citizen EPA petition as “short on facts; long on emotion; and rife with questionable accusations.”

“It is clear that the accusations made by a small group of individuals are not reflective of the community as a whole,” they wrote.

Wolverine attorneys forwarded the letter to the EPA.

The community newspaper, the Rockford Squire, parroted and elevated prominent critiques. Squire editor Beth Altena joined the chorus at points, accusing the McIntoshs of “using contamination issues as their biggest weapon” to oppose redevelopments they didn’t like.

In a Nov. 1, 2012 editorial, Altena warned against electing group ally Gail Mancewicz to the city council due to her “alliance with disgruntled residents who have been causing as much trouble for the city as possible using scare tactics and half-truths.” Altena decried “harassment of our business community,” praising Rockford as being “known for the seamless cooperation enjoyed by the city, our merchants, our schools and our Chamber of Commerce.”

A.J. Birkbeck, an environmental attorney hired by McIntosh early on, said the false narrative concocted about the group is ridiculous.

“I mean, Lynn lives here,” Birkbeck said. “She doesn’t want to see property values plummet. On the other hand, to stick your head in the sand and do nothing because Wolverine says, “Don’t worry, we don’t have a problem,” is not the way to proceed either.”

‘She showed enough that I had more questions’

The pushback worked as intended.

“We were told over and over again that we were wrong and the site was clean,” said Janice Tompkins, a former DEQ environmental quality analyst who joined the citizens group in 2011.

Tompkins met McIntosh in April that year while attending a Rogue River watershed council meeting on behalf of the Lower Grand River Organization of Watersheds (LGROW) in the Grand Valley Metro Council, an alliance of governmental units in West Michigan. McIntosh visited the meeting to talk about her tannery concerns.

The presentation wasn’t McIntosh’s finest. Tompkins said McIntosh, whose documentation tends to take over a room, had some trouble finding the right papers and photos to show during the presentation. “But, she showed enough that I had more questions.”

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