Originally posted on Grand Rapids News by Garret Ellison on October 3, 2017.
ROCKFORD, MI — Wolverine World Wide has claimed it first learned last fall that the Scotchgard waterproofing agent it used to make Hush Puppies shoes for decades contained a toxic chemical which has subsequently polluted the Rogue River in Rockford and poisoned drinking water supplies in Plainfield Township.
3M, the Minnesota giant which manufactures Scotchgard, has undercut Wolverine’s claim by disclosing an 18-year-old document showing Wolverine was specifically advised that the former Scotchgard chemistry was being discontinued and the key compound was a threat to environmental health.
The two companies met in Rockford to discuss the chemical on Jan. 10, 1999, according to a 3M letter sent five days later to former Wolverine vice president Rick DeBlasio.
3M attorneys disclosed the letter on Friday, Nov. 3.
“3M bears no responsibility for the environmental practices of Wolverine,” wrote 3M attorney William A. Brewer III.
“We are surprised to see that Wolverine claims it was unaware of the fact that PFOS was used at its former tannery and, apparently, that it was unaware of 3M’s voluntary decision to phase out of the chemistries in question,” Brewer wrote.
“The record reflects otherwise.”
“Beyond the fact that 3M’s phaseout decision and leadership on this issue made national headlines, 3M personally met with Wolverine long before and during the time of the phaseout announcement in May 2000,” Brewer wrote. “These meetings were to discuss PFOS, share information about the compound, and advise of 3M’s voluntary efforts to phase out of the chemistries.”
According to the letter, Wolverine was advised that PFOS “has the potential to accumulate in the body with repeated exposures and resist degradation in the environment.”
“This information was reported to your company previously in an updated Material Safety Data Sheet as recently as late 1998,” the letter reads.
The letter notes 3M monitored employees for over 20 years and found PFOS at various concentrations in their bodies, and that “exposure could occur from manufacturing process of 3M and its downstream users, as well as from product use and disposal.”
The letter is dated prior to the reformulation of Scotchgard under pressure from the Environmental Protection Agency, which said in 2000 it would have taken steps to have Scotchgard removed from the market had 3M not voluntarily phased out PFOS production.
3M later developed a new version of Scotchgard that relies on perfluorobutane sulfonate, or PFBS, as its key ingredient.
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality says it’s reviewing the 3M disclosure and plans to bring up the matter with Wolverine.
“The DEQ takes the issue of full transparency of historical information very seriously as this is very important information in our site investigations,” DEQ spokesperson Melanie Brown said in a statement.
“The department is reviewing the newly obtained 3M correspondence and is looking forward to discussing with WWW how this new information correlates to the background information they previously have provided to us.
In mid-August, Wolverine sent MLive a statement through the public relations firm Lambert, Edwards & Associates claiming it didn’t know didn’t know perfluoroctanesulfonic acid, or PFOS, was used in Scotchgard at the tannery until last year.
PFOS is one of numerous per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances collectively called PFAS, (also PFCs), found in the Rogue River near the Rockford dam and in residential drinking water wells near Wolverine’s long forgotten landfill on House Street NE in Belmont.
Wolverine began using Scotchgard at the tannery in 1958.
“In fall 2016, Wolverine first learned that PFOS may have been present in compounds used at its former tannery in Rockford,” the Aug. 18 statement read. “Following this, Wolverine developed and submitted to the DEQ a proposed plan to voluntarily sample this site for not only PFOS, but also for PFOA and other PFAS compounds.”
The statement was issued in response to a question about an allegation that Wolverine attorney Michael Robinson and consultant Mark Westra claimed there was “no evidence that PFOS was ever used at the Rockford Tannery site” during a Aug. 22, 2016 meeting with the Concerned Citizens for Responsible Redevelopment group of Rockford held at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council.
The allegation was in a Jan. 24 memo to the DEQ by Richard Rediske, an environmental chemist at Grand Valley State University’s Annis Water Resources Institute, who warned that scrap leather on the riverbanks, waste buried on site and tannery wastewater may have contained PFOS for 44 years.
Rediske specifically warned that a new tannery site inspection was needed as well as scrutiny of old local disposal sites that might have accepted tannery waste.
Months after Rediske’s memo, PFAS was discovered in wells near Wolverine’s House Street NE landfill, where tannery sludge was dumped into unlined trenches in the 1960s.
The subsequent DEQ investigation into that PFAS plume spread has morphed into a widespread search for other old Wolverine dump sites around northern Kent County.
The investigation has also sparked a county cancer study.
On Saturday evening, Nov. 4, Wolverine responded to 3M’s disclosure with a statement seemingly at odds with its previous assertion.
“Wolverine has known and it was widely publicized that 3M’s Scotchgard contained PFAS and we relied on 3M’s representations to us, the EPA, and the public that it had no adverse effects on the environment or human health,” the company stated.
“We’ve never intended to infer anything to the contrary.
“Wolverine used 3M’s Scotchgard product (which contained PFAS) from about 1960 through 2002 when the product was reformulated. 3M has always assured Wolverine (as it does in its letter), the EPA and the public that the chemical is safe for the environment and human health. Wolverine acted in good faith based on that information and always complied with EPA and state regulations.”
Since the PFAS investigation began in earnest, Wolverine has made repeated reference to 3M’s responsibility for the chemical.
3M first sold Scotchgard in 1956. It protected fabric, furniture and carpets from water and stains for decades. It was reformulated in the early 2000s after the EPA determined the chemistry was toxic to humans, magnifies up the food chain and persists in the environment.
On its website, Wolverine wrote that “3M are experts at PFAS.”
“They created and sold the product and we now understand that they have a number of environmental sites involving PFAS that they are involved in around the United States (including Alabama and Minnesota) and the world.”
“We have reached out to 3M to get their expert advice because they have state of the art research on PFAS and their possible impact on humans and the environment – Wolverine has not yet had access to this research,” Wolverine wrote. “We have asked 3M to step up and partner with us, the community and the various regulatory agencies to help address the issues in our community related to the products that they manufactured and sold.”
Wolverine’s says it began using the reformulated version in 2002 and “we now know that Scotchgard contained PFOA/PFOS until 3M changed the formula around 2002.”
When asked Sept. 12 how Wolverine could not have known PFOS was in Scotchgard until last year, vice president Chris Hufnagel called it an “emerging issue.”
“This PFAS is, I think we would all agree, it is an emerging issue,” Hufnagel said. “There is not a lot known about it. We’re learning more, honestly, on a daily basis.”