Originally posted on MLive by Garret Ellison on February 1, 2018.
Within days of bringing their newborn baby daughter home from the hospital, Jeffrey Klekotka and his girlfriend Kelsey were being supplied with bottled water and gift cards.
The expanding investigation into local groundwater tainted by Wolverine World Wide tannery sludge chemicals had reached their Algoma Township doorstep east of Rockford.
That was early December. Last week, Klekotka received the test results for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances called PFAS or PFCs in his drinking water well.
The results aren’t just high. According to toxicology experts familiar with PFAS, 58,930 parts per trillion (ppt) combined PFOS and PFOA is believed to be highest level of those two chemicals found in drinking water anywhere in the country — possibly the world.
“They said ‘don’t drink it, don’t cook with it, don’t brush your teeth with it — don’t even give it to your animals,'” Klekotka said. “Don’t do anything with it.” Exposure to the chemistry has been linked to certain cancers, thyroid malfunction and other diseases. All PFAS compounds in the well totaled 61,450-ppt.
“It’s pretty scary with a newborn.”
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality isn’t sure where the chemicals in Klekotka’s well came from, or why they are so highly concentrated at the edge of the PFAS testing zone north of 10 Mile Road between Wolven and Jewell avenues.
The contamination isn’t coming from Wolverine’s House Street dump site in Belmont, where the previous record for PFAS in drinking water was found in a well across the street. That property is more than 2.5 miles to the southwest and downhill.
“We don’t know the source at this point,” said DEQ spokesperson Melanie Brown.
But that doesn’t mean nothing is known about why tannery waste leftovers are plaguing the area. According to local residents, Wolverine sludge was once spread on farmland later developed into upscale houses off Elstner Avenue NE south of 11 Mile Road.
Richard Geldhof, a Rockford historian who lives on Elstner Avenue, said Algoma Township farmer Irwin Flanagan once spread Wolverine’s lime-heavy sludge as crop fertilizer on land developed in the 1990s into the Wellington Ridge neighborhood.
Kent County property records show Irwin’s son, Richard Flanagan, owned Klekotka’s property prior to 1994, when it was sold to Roger and Rosalyn Hunter.
Rosalyn Hunter died in 2003 of breast cancer, family said.
The house on 11 Mile Road NE where it dead-ends at U.S. 131 was built in 1950. Wellington Ridge homes are visible through the tree line.
The Wellington Ridge neighborhood has been stricken with high PFAS results. One home along Royal Hannah Drive NE tested at 20,500-ppt PFOS and PFOA.
The DEQ is now thinking about expanding the PFAS testing zone further north. To date, about 1,500 homes and 15 contiguous square miles in three municipalities are in a testing zone.
Residents and officials are frustrated by the uncertainty.
“It’s disturbing,” said Algoma Township Supervisor Kevin Green.
“These drivers used to take it to the farms, maybe there was a couple spots to put it,” Green said. “Maybe it didn’t always have to be in the same spot.”
There is a known PFAS source in the vicinity. Monitoring wells on the north side of the North Kent Landfill at 2908 10 Mile Road have tested in the 90- to 160-ppt range for PFOS and PFOA. Records show Wolverine dumped sludge there in the early 1980s. The landfill is one mile due south of Klekotka’s home.
DEQ won’t point the finger at North Kent, though.
“We have no information that confirms or even suggests that the North Kent Landfill is a contributor to this plume where the high hit is,” Brown said. “We hope to be able to make this determination as part of our investigation process.”
The PFOS and PFOA level in Klekotka’s well is about 842 times the Environmental Protection Agency’s health advisory level of 70-ppt for those two chemicals in drinking water. Michigan’s new enforceable groundwater limit mirrors that level.
When asked about its involvement with the plume in Algoma Township, the EPA only said through a spokesperson that the DEQ was “lead agency on drinking water issues related to PFAS contamination from Wolverine’s operations in Rockford.”
In December, EPA conducted independent water quality testing for PFAS in the “Rogue River and Rum Creek, groundwater from two Wolverine industrial properties and drinking water at affected residences.”
The agency “presently does not maintain information that would confirm” whether Klekotka’s well was national record.
It caught the eye of officials in other states grappling with PFAS-tainted drinking water. Hoosick Falls, N.Y. Mayor Rob Allen called Klekotka’s well level “nuts.”
The New York village is looking for a new water source after high levels of PFOA from the Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics plant were found in the municipal water supply. The factory was added to the national Superfund site list last year.
“We had a monitoring well clear the 100,000 (ppt) mark on site, but I don’t think I have ever seen that in a well,” Allen said on Twitter.
David Andrews, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, said the elevated PFOA levels being discovered in some Kent County wells are much higher than those found in drinking water supplies near DuPont’s factory in West Virginia, where public and private water supplies didn’t exceed 3,000-ppt for PFOA.
At 58,930-ppt, Klekotka’s well is about 20,000-ppt higher than the previous record level, at Sandy Wynn-Stelt’s home on House Street NE across from the now-infamous Belmont dump. Even levels in that site’s groundwater haven’t exceeded this new high mark. Total PFAS on Wolverine’s House Street dump is 52,000-ppt.
“This testing result is clearly a level of enormous concern, especially because we know that contamination levels in human blood are often 100 times higher than those in the drinking water,” said Andrews.
The EWG also couldn’t confirm if the well was a record.
Klekotka said Wolverine’s contractors were at his home within days to install a granular activated carbon whole house filtration system. He was told the Culligan system, with eight large carbon tanks, is the largest of its kind ever installed.
Klekotka moved his family, including a 6-year-old son, into the home in June. In addition to potential health concerns, he’s facing a major property-value drop. He credited Wolverine for the filter system, “but the way things are, it can’t be the permanent solution.”
Wolverine said it “shares the community’s concern.”
“We installed a whole house filter at this home within days after these results were received, and will be re-testing that filter soon,” the company said.
“We continue to work closely with the DEQ to identify possible sources, while at the same time implementing solutions that give the community confidence in its water.”
Legal Claims Resulting from PFAS in your Water
If your water has been contaminated by chemicals, you may have a claim against the responsible party for damages to your property or for increased health risks.
If you have been affected by the water contaminated with PFAS, our lawyers can advise you or your rights and remedies. Contact us by calling 303-861-8800, or by filling out the contact form below.