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Wolverine Worldwide tannery cleanup launch pushed back to 2024

ROCKFORD, MI — Wolverine Worldwide would not begin to stem the flow of polluted groundwater into the Rogue River from underneath its former tannery in Rockford until 2024, according to a new plan state regulators are reviewing.

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) says Wolverine would begin treating toxic PFAS chemicals in the Rockford groundwater in May 2024 under a revised cleanup plan submitted in December.

The proposal follows months of delay that earned Wolverine a rebuke in October from EGLE, which was expecting construction to begin in the fall on the long-awaited system after approving the design in March.

The new plan is open to public comment through Jan. 27.

“We want to see relief to the natural resources as soon as we can,” said Karen Vorce, EGLE remediation division district supervisor in Grand Rapids, during a Jan. 10 online public hearing to discuss the plan changes.

“I think everyone on this call feels that way.”

Under terms in a 2020 consent decree, Wolverine was supposed to begin construction in September on a system to remove PFAS from the groundwater in downtown Rockford, where the company operated a 100-year-old leather tannery that was demolished in 2010 and 2011.

Wolverine used 3M Scotchgard at the tannery for decades to waterproof shoe leather. Tannery waste dumps polluted large swaths of northern Kent County. In Rockford, extremely high levels of PFAS remain in the groundwater; upwards of 500,000 parts-per-trillion (ppt) near outdoor chemical storage areas.

The site is being evaluated for inclusion on the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund list.

Plans have been in the works since early 2019 to extract PFAS from the groundwater and stop their bleed into the Rogue River, where they’re driving fish consumption advisories and causing toxic surface water foam at the Rockford Dam.

Originally, the “tannery interceptor plan” would have sent treated groundwater to the North Kent Sewer System in Plainfield Township. Plans were redrafted during consent decree negotiations and the work was delayed by the onset of a separate 2019 tannery cleanup ordered by the EPA.

The EPA-ordered work did not involve any PFAS cleanup. It was done to remove other hazardous contaminants such as chromium and mercury in shallow soil and sediments that posed a risk to Rogue River and White Pine Trail users.

In the latest plan, Wolverine wants to dig six high volume extraction wells at different depths and pump groundwater through 2,000 feet of shallow trenches filled with permeable soils. The pumps and trenches would feed an on-site granular activated carbon (GAC) filtration system that would discharge treated water to the river under a state permit.

Based on consultant modeling, Wolverine claims the new plan would increase the pumping rate to 77 gallons-per-minute (gpm) compared to 48-gpm under the plan EGLE approved in March, which involved 22 extraction wells and no trenches.

Design would be finalized in April and construction would begin in October if EGLE approves the new design next month, according to a timeline presented Wednesday.

EGLE staff presented the plan but did not comment on its merits during the meeting.

Local environmental activists and independent experts who’ve watchdogged Wolverine for years raised concerns about the sampling effort underlying the design changes and criticized the company for another cleanup delay.

Rick Rediske, a Grand Valley State University environmental chemistry professor who co-chairs the Wolverine Community Advisory Group (CAG), questioned whether the trenches were deep enough to capture pollution across the site.

“I’m concerned they chose to test north of Rum Creek and most of the contamination is to the south,” Rediske said. “There was almost 10 years of selection of sampling sites that proved nothing was wrong with the area around the White Pine Trail and then all of a sudden when they had to do a grid, there was contamination found.”

“I don’t think we can just go with a couple pump tests and then have all the work done to the north rather than the south… that’s where all the contamination is,” Rediske continued. “We still see large amounts of foam being created by the dam. Unless you stop that PFAS contaminated groundwater, we’re going to have continued damages to the Rogue River.”

Lynn McIntosh, a Rockford piano teacher who amassed years of research on Wolverine’s environmental problems that proved pivotal to uncovering the widespread contamination, asked why it should take eight months to start construction after getting EGLE approval.

“They’ve wasted time by not bringing you into the process sooner,” McIntosh said, noting that Wolverine waited months last year to inform EGLE that it was altering its plans.

After the meeting, Wolverine spokespeople emailed reporters a link to a Dec. 21 company blog post in which the company defended its decision to delay the cleanup.

“Designing, installing, and tuning a groundwater extraction system is an iterative, complex process,” the post states. “We know there will need to be further adjustments along the way, but we want to do everything we can to do it well the first time. So, we have decided to proceed in phases, first by installing the trenches and extraction wells and testing them for efficacy while using a temporary treatment system. Assuming that system works as intended, we would then construct a more permanent treatment building.”

The state is accepting public comment on the plan through Jan. 27. Comments can be emailed to [email protected] or postmarked to EGLE-RRD, 350 Ottawa Avenue NW, Unit 10, Grand Rapids, MI 49503.

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