The Flint water crisis was the product of government inaction, mostly attributed to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. Now, the same state agency is in the spotlight for a delay in responding to another drinking water scandal, this time involving waterproofing chemicals and Hush Puppies shoes.
Last summer, private drinking-water wells in Belmont, Michigan—a small community just north of Grand Rapids, the second-largest city in Michigan—tested positive for extremely high levels of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), an ingredient in Teflon, the chemical used to make non-stick cookware, and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), a widely used flame retardant. Both chemicals are part of a class of compounds called PFAS, and both happen to be great at waterproofing shoes. They’re surfactants, which means they reduce the surface tension of water, making it slide right off whatever the surfactant is applied to.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Wolverine World Wide, a global shoe company, was waterproofing its famous Hush Puppies shoe line with Scotchgard, a PFAS-based chemical cocktail made by American multinational conglomerate 3M. Wolverine was then dumping the PFAS-laden sludge into a wooded area in Belmont, long before laws required waste pits to be lined and sealed. Over time, it seeped into the groundwater, migrating underground into people’s drinking water supplies.
But the potential for water contamination was only discovered in April 2017, when a geologist with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality wrote an email to his supervisors, alerting them to the potential for toxic compounds at the Belmont dump site, and that the agency should be testing the drinking water of nearby homes. But, according to local news site MLive.com, instead of immediately heeding his advice, the agency did not start testing the wells he identified until July, and did not reach some of the most-contaminated homes until September. Residents were not warned about the potential for contamination in the intervening months.
The US Environmental and Protection Agency does not regulate PFAS, so state and local governments aren’t required to test for them in municipal tap water systems—and private wells aren’t tested by local governments at all. While it sets no legal requirements, the EPA does set a recommended maximum exposure level for PFAS at 70 parts per trillion.
As the scope of the investigation expanded, the environmental agency found that the underground chemicals had spread farther than they’d realized, crossing under an interstate and contaminating more wells along the way. The investigation has now turned up 100 wells with PFAS contamination that exceeds the EPA’s recommended limit for exposure—and some wells exceed it hundreds of times over. One well at a home across the street from the dump site, tested by the state in July, contained PFAS levels of 37,800 parts per trillion, 540 times higher than EPA recommendations.
While private drinking wells are the responsibility of their owners, it is the responsibility of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to enforce toxic waste management and investigate groundwater contamination. There would be virtually no way for a private homeowner to know to test their well for the relatively obscure, not-federally-regulated toxins without warnings from their government.
Due to budget problems at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the state’s investigation into the contamination is actually being conducted by Wolverine. By now, the investigation has grown beyond the initial Belmont location, to an additional 20 former Wolverine dump sites in the region, including one a half mile from a middle school, which has since switched to bottled water.
“The state couldn’t possibly afford to do this. Our funds are pretty much out for response activities like this,” Michigan Department of Environmental Quality field supervisor David O’Donnell told MLive.
The state agency also allegedly allowed Wolverine’s lawyers to draft both the talking points used by employees spoke to residents, and the letters it distributed to people who lived on the same street as the Wolverine dump site, copying the text onto official, state-of-Michigan letterhead. As MLive’s Garret Ellison reported:
The letter does not mention Wolverine or the dump site at all. O’Donnell told MLive that he allowed Wolverine to dictate public communication in order to maintain a “cooperative relationship” that “helps me get other stuff later.”
Wolverine told MLive.com that it didn’t know there was PFAS in the Scotchgard it was using until the contamination was discovered last year. But 3M, the maker of Scotchgard, shot back that in 1999, it warned Wolverine the Scotchgard was a potential problem.
3M stopped making its Scotchgard product with PFOA in 2000, after finding devastating health effects in its internal lab tests on monkeys. The results were significant enough to prompt the company to report them to the US Environmental Protection Agency in April, 2000. They discontinued manufacturing of the product a month later.
In a statement, Wolverine says it is “working diligently and cooperatively” with the state to address the contamination.
“Wolverine’s commitment to being part of a long-term solution is apparent from its actions – it has paid for over 1,500 groundwater tests, provided bottled water to over 1,200 homes, installed over 70 monitoring wells, and installed over 500 whole-house filters and over 100 point-of-use filters.”
A seven-year investigation by epidemiologists into the health effects of PFOA, published it in 2011 and 2012, concluded that there was a clear link between the chemical and two types of cancer in humans, as well as several other serious diseases. Since then, other research has found that children are especially susceptible to PFOA poisoning, and can suffer from behavioral and developmental problems as a result.
In 2017, rumors circulated that the EPA planned to begin to regulate the chemical. The federal agency hasn’t made any moves to do so since then. Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA is responsible for determining when a chemical needs to be regulated in the US water supply, but it hasn’t added a new toxin to its list since 1996. In the meanwhile, a recent reanalysis of old EPA data found that PFOA is likely present in about 20% of public water drinking supplies in the US.
But the case in Belmont, Michigan exposes a unique gap in water regulation: Even in a world where the EPA had added PFOA and PFOS to their list of regulated chemicals, the Belmont wells would likely not have been tested. The EPA does not require private wells to be tested for contaminants—that is the responsibility of the well owner. It also does not require water testing on tribal lands, or of water systems that serve less than 10,000 people, leaving it to local regulators to decide how it wants to manage those.
Update: This story has been updated with a statement from Wolverine, along with an updated number of confirmed Wolverine dump sites.