GRAND RAPIDS, MI — Minnesota manufacturing giant 3M tested water samples and sent specialists to analyze fluorochemical exposure at the former Wolverine World Wide tannery in Rockford, according to new filings by Michigan residents suing over drinking water polluted by chemical dumping in Kent County.
In August 1999, an “industrial hygienist” visited the former leather tannery amid growing concerns related to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, in 3M Scotchgard that Wolverine workers used in mass quantity at the shoe leather complex.
The visit — part of substantial PFAS-related discussion between 3M and Wolverine — is outlined in amended lawsuits filed Monday, Aug. 13, in Kent County 17th Circuit Court by attorneys for Varnum Law, which represent more than 400 people suing Wolverine over contamination caused by tannery waste dumping.
The filings formally name 3M as a defendant after Judge George J. Quist ruled that Wolverine could drag its former chemical supplier into the case as a liable party.
The cases before Quist are not class-action, although Wolverine and 3M are co-defendants in a separate but similar PFAS class-action case in federal court. Wolverine is also facing two other PFAS class-action cases filed by local residents in state court.
Varnum’s cases have advanced the farthest to date. The firm expects to file about 150 amended complaints by the end of August. The lawsuits cover a range of allegations, from wrongful death and health claims to property value loss and statutory violations.
The new filings illuminate the relationship between Wolverine and 3M while expanding on the manufacturer’s role in concealing alleged harm its lucrative chemical production was causing to people and the environment. It paints a picture of two companies bonded by lucrative but toxic chemistry that neither wanted to jettison.
Much of the documentation was subpoenaed from 3M.
“It’s bizarre how much communication there was,” said Varnum attorney Paul Albarran. “I’m sure there’s more we haven’t seen yet.”
Scotchgard was one of multiple PFAS products made by 3M, which the filing notes was taking in $1 billion in revenue every 2-3 years from sale of such fluorochemicals in the United States.
Wolverine was a major customer.
Starting in 1958, Wolverine bought “more than half the Scotchgard 3M sold to tanneries around the world,” the filings claim. In 1990, the company bought more than 94,500 pounds of it. The pure Scotchgard was dark green and it stained tannery waste that color.
Wolverine’s status as a dominant Scotchgard buyer afforded it “unprecedented” access to internal knowledge about health and environmental problems 3M had been accruing but concealing from the public for decades, the filings say.
In Miami, Fla., on Jan. 10, 1999, Wolverine and 3M executives met at the Pan American Leather trade show to talk about environmental concerns with PFOS, the key ingredient in Scotchgard. Wolverine was allegedly concerned about “fluorine levels in tannery workers” and the “potential business impact of publicity,” according to the filings.
A week later, 3M sent Wolverine a letter summarizing the meeting in which 3M wrote that chemical exposures could occur from Scotchgard use and disposal, that PFOS accumulated in the body and did not breakdown in the environment, and that it was being found in the blood serum of people who were not chemical factory workers.
On Nov. 3, 2017, 3M attorneys made that letter public in an apparent bid to deflect blame for contamination from Wolverine’s dumping.
A couple months after the 1999 letter was written, 3M scientist Richard Purdy resigned in protest over secrecy around PFAS, which he called “the most insidious pollutant since PCBs.” Not long after, 3M began developing a new Scotchgard formula that relies on PFBS as its key ingredient after the Environmental Protection Agency began to pressure the company to stop making PFOS.
On June 24, 1999, 3M met with a group of Wolverine executives that included now-CEO Blake Krueger to address concerns that tannery workers might have high exposure levels because they’ve “been using the product as long as 3M’s and probably take fewer precautions.”
The next day, Wolverine sent 3M water samples for testing.
Less than a month later, on July 16, handwritten 3M notes from a call with Wolverine indicate Scotchgard “got into drinking water” at the tannery during product spraying. In August, a 3M specialist visited the tannery to take PFAS air samples, also noting “multiple observations of workers not wearing gloves when handling the chemical.”
Scotchgard often spilled into the tannery floor, the filings note.
“Wolverine needs to consider necessary engineering controls in that drying process to prevent volatile material from escaping into the work area,” the filings quote.
Wolverine was “interested in pursuing blood testing within their employees” and worried about residual exposure from people wearing its shoes, the filings claim. The company kept in touch with 3M after the site visit by requesting internal 3M communications, assurances about product safety and insurance policy coverage.
3M continued to sell Wolverine the old Scotchgard formulation after the product phaseout announcement in 2000, the filings allege, citing internal emails.
Wolverine declined to comment on the filings, writing in a statement that it would “respond to these issues in court, which is the appropriate venue for these issues.”
In a statement, 3M said it “cares deeply about the safety and health of Michigan’s communities.”
“3M acted responsibly in connection with products containing PFAS, and will vigorously defend its environmental stewardship,” said Robert DeJong, a Miller Canfield attorney in Grand Rapids representing 3M. “In these cases, plaintiffs have already acknowledged that 3M did not dispose of any of the waste at issue.”
The Kent County case filings correspond with greater scrutiny on 3M’s role in the expanding PFAS crisis in Michigan and beyond. In June, the state of New York filed a lawsuit against 3M and five other companies that manufactured products containing PFAS.
In July, Gov. Rick Snyder asked Attorney General Bill Schuette to draft a lawsuit against 3M, saying products like Scotchgard and firefighting foams made with PFAS have caused significant contamination in more than 20 communities around Michigan.
In human studies, public health experts have linked exposure to PFAS chemicals with increased risk for cancer, thyroid and liver damage, and other serious ailments.
Varnum benefitted from documents disclosed by the Minnesota Attorney General’s office after the state settled its lawsuit with 3M in February for $850 million. The disclosures have shed light on 3M’s internal knowledge about the toxicity of PFAS from exposure studies conducted decades ago but never revealed.
“They hid this information from the public, the government and their employees,” said Albarran, noting that Michigan has outsized number of PFAS contamination sites tied to 3M products.
“They should step up and be accountable for their actions here.”
*Original article online at https://www.mlive.com/news/grand-rapids/index.ssf/2018/08/3m_wolverine_pfas_lawsuits.html