PLAINFIELD TOWNSHIP, MI – Wolverine World Wide denied allegations in a lawsuit it is responsible for the death of a newborn boy delivered early after his mother says she suffered pregnancy complications from drinking contaminated water.
The company asked all lawsuits in Kent County Circuit Court, including allegations related to at least two deaths, be dismissed. If the cases go forward, the company wants them included in a class-action lawsuit in federal court.
Wolverine is accused of disposing of polyfluoroalkyl substances called PFAS or PFCs, once used in 3M Scotchgard to waterproof shoes at its former Rockford tannery.
Attorney James Moskal said state and federal agencies are investigating the widespread contamination and the lawsuits would undermine efforts to “determine the scope of proper remedies.”
The company expects to spend $40 million this year addressing the contamination, which includes what’s believed to be record PFAS levels in drinking water.
He said Wolverine acted appropriately under the law at the time when the chemical dumping in Plainfield Township took place.
“All acts and conduct of Wolverine, as alleged in the complaint, conformed to and were pursuant to statutes, government regulations and industry standards, based upon the state of knowledge existing at all material times alleged in the complaint,” Moskal, an attorney for Warner, Norcross & Judd, wrote in court documents.
“At all relevant times Wolverine disposed of waste containing PFAS, it reasonably believed the waste to be safe. At the time Wolverine disposed of the waste, it was standard practice in the industry to dispose of waste in the same manner as Wolverine.”
That argument is lost on Ashlee Naffziger. She developed severe preeclampsia, or pregnancy-induced hypertension, and underwent an emergency caesarean section at 36 weeks.
Her son, Hunter, needed to stay in utero for 37 weeks so that his lungs and body could develop enough to withstand surgery to fix a heart defect that doctors detected early on.
Preeclampsia has been linked in human studies to PFAS exposure.
“This case demonstrates the horrific consequences that Wolverine’s widespread dumping of dangerous chemicals has caused: the death of a newborn child,” Varnum Law attorneys Perrin Rynders, Aaron Phelps, Kyle Konwinski and Paul Albarran wrote in an 89-page lawsuit.
They said the boy would have had successful surgery and been healthy if he wasn’t born early. He wasn’t ready for surgery, the attorneys said.
“After six-and-one-half weeks, the Naffzigers had to make the decision that no parent ever wants to make: care-of-life treatment or more surgeries, pain and life support. Because both choices would unfortunately end in the same result, the Naffzigers chose care-of-life treatment rather than subjecting Hunter to more pain and suffering.”
The Naffzigers contended that Wolverine, over the course of decades, disposed of tannery waste into the ground, which the company knew would leach into the groundwater.
Last year, authorities told the Naffzigers and others that tannery waste had contaminated their water with PFAS.
“Unfortunately, the residents and their family members, including many children (some infants and some grown), have drank the contaminated water their entire life. Now, due to Wolverine’s tannery waste contaminating drinking water, many residents who drank the contaminated water have health problems from drinking contaminated water.”
Over 90 lawsuits have been filed in Kent County Circuit Court. The lawsuits are similar, with Wolverine’s response identical.
Sandy Wynn-Stelt filed a wrongful death lawsuit. She lives across the street from the company’s old sludge waste dump at 1855 House Street NE. Her husband, Joel R. Stelt, 61, died March 26, 2016.
The water sample from the Stelts’ well in 2017 was “alarmingly high” and was “believed to be the highest concentrations of FPAS ever found in drinking water in the United States,” the lawsuit said. An August test found PFOS and PFOA in Wynn-Stelt’s well at 38,000 parts per trillion. Since then, state officials discovered a well in Algoma Township with PFOS and PFOA at almost 59,000-ppt.
Wynn-Stelt and her husband moved to House Street in 1988. They used a reverse-osmosis filter in the kitchen sink, but it did not remove all PFAS.
She has suffered anguish from her husband’s loss. Now, she doesn’t know what her future holds, the filing states.
“As far as (Sandra Wynn-Stelt’s) emotional state goes, (she) is scared, anxious, concerned, has no peace of mind, and is completely discomforted as compared to her life just a few months ago.”
The lawsuit said Wolverine knew decades ago it was dumping dangerous chemicals, even on farmland.
Residents contend they have suffered health problems, anxiety and loss of property values. One man, at a township board meeting, said: “The real estate values due to this Belmont Chernobyl are going to take a severe hit.”
In a statement, Wolverine said its court filings on Monday, Feb. 12, “do not diminish the Company’s commitment to working with the community to find long-term solutions.”
“The groundwater issues facing our community are serious, and that’s why the Company continues to work diligently with local, state and federal regulators to develop long-term solutions. That said, many of the allegations made by plaintiffs’ attorneys in the state court lawsuits are misleading and are not supported by facts.”
Wolverine asked for a stay in the state court cases to address issues raised in a federal case.
The Wolverine PFAS investigation began last year with discovery of contaminated wells near the company’s old sludge dump on House Street in Plainfield Township. It has since spread to Algoma Township and the city of Rockford.
Exposure to PFAS chemistry has been linked in human studies to certain cancers, thyroid malfunction and other chronic diseases.
In January, the Environmental Protection Agency ordered Wolverine to conduct further investigation at the House Street dump and the company’s former tannery grounds in Rockford, which are both contaminated by extremely high levels of PFAS.
Wolverine has been providing bottled water and whole-house PFAS filtration units to most homes in DEQ-established testing areas.
Meanwhile, Plainfield Township officials plan to borrow up to $25 million to extend its municipal water system to areas with contaminated wells.
Moskal, the Wolverine attorney, said the case should be dismissed with plaintiffs joining a class-action suit in federal court.
“Before explaining why summary disposition is warranted, one threshold issue needs to be clarified: There is no imminent danger to anyone’s health in the context of these cases.”
He said that before Wolverine provided alternate water options, 34 of the 52 plaintiffs had levels of a subset of PFAS that were below federal drinking water advisories, and 13 had no detectable concentrations, he said.
“These 34 plaintiffs had safe water before any alternate water solutions were provided by Wolverine. … Their water was and continues to be safe.”
He said whole-home filters have been provided to 16 plaintiffs whose wells tested above federal advisories and state criteria while another has not responded to its offer.
Another is awaiting test results and is provided bottled water by Wolverine.
“In other words, the plaintiffs in these cases have safe drinking water, and there is no immediacy to the present litigation.”
The attorneys for the plaintiffs said Wolverine ignored dangers and warning signs for decades. Twenty years ago, it was found that PFAS, an ingredient in 3M’s Scotchgard, which was used by Wolverine, was toxic. 3M discontinued using PFAS, but Wolverine continued to “boast about its historical use of Scotchgard in its manufacturing process until just a few months ago, despite Scotchgard’s damaging effects to the environment and to human health.
“Through the years, Wolverine was notified by concerned citizens, state officials and federal officials about the harmful effects of Wolverine’s tannery waste (as if Wolverine did not know).”
*Original article online at https://www.mlive.com/news/grand-rapids/index.ssf/2018/02/wolverine_denies_role_in_newbo.html