Water contamination in West Michigan prompts questions, concerns

Dec 5, 2017
Originally published on December 5, 2017 4:36 pm

People in northern Kent County have been dealing with the recent discovery of groundwater contamination for the past several months.

Some residents still have questions about what caused it and how it could affect their health.

Clear Bottom Lake in Plainfield Township is about 10 miles north of Grand Rapids. Less than half a mile from the lake, there’s a “No Trespassing” sign leaning against some small trees.

This is the boundary for what’s come to be known as the House Street dump site.

Lynn McIntosh is with Concerned Citizens for Responsible Remediation, a group that alerts local and state officials about potential environmental issues.

“We came upon information about this dump as we were continuing to do research about the tannery in Rockford, Michigan,” McIntosh says.

The tannery she refers to belonged to Wolverine Worldwide, a company that makes shoes under brands like Hush Puppies, Merrell and Stride Rite.

The group started looking at the tannery in 2010, because it was set to be demolished.

Soon, she started hearing about this spot in the woods – where the company was rumored to have dumped tannery waste for years.

“I was just shaking my head, and immediately, I felt like this pit in my stomach about ‘oh my gosh, do the people who live near this place know about this?'” McIntosh says.

The group took its concerns to the Department of Environmental Quality in 2013, but nothing really happened for a few years because the group didn’t provide enough evidence that there was cause for concern in the area.

Then, McIntosh and her colleagues got tipped off about some specific chemicals that would have been dumped at the House Street site.

In January 2017, the DEQ started testing there.

David O’Donnell is with the DEQ. He says the dumping happened decades ago.

“There was less regulation and more opportunities for people to find places to put stuff. One of those places was at House Street,” O’Donnell says.

He says the guy who owned the land let Wolverine dump there.

“They disposed of solid waste and they disposed of liquid waste,” O’ Donnell says.

Testing found toxic chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances – or PFAS. This family of chemicals, which was formerly used in products like Scotchgard, is often used to waterproof leather goods.

In March, Wolverine voluntarily began testing homes with private wells near House Street after the DEQ presented them the results from the groundwater tests.

Living with unknowns

Nearly 900 homes have been tested, and so far, 30 homes have tested above the EPA advisory level of 70 parts per trillion.

Tobyn McNaughton lives in one of those homes. She and her family live in Belmont, about a mile south on US-131 from the House Street site.

McNaughton remembers the moment someone from the Kent County Health Department called to explain her test results.

“My husband was on the phone with her, and he repeated the number back to her and I was like ‘did he really just say 1,960?’” McNaughton says.

In other words, the McNaughton family’s water tested 28 times the EPA’s 70 parts per trillion advisory level.

“I was just like ‘what happens now?’ I just didn’t know what to think or say about it,” she says.

The McNaughtons have a one and a half year old son named Jack. Tobyn worries he was exposed to PFAS while she was pregnant, and that he drank water from their well for several months.

She had his blood tested at the end of October and she’s still waiting for the results.

“So just waiting is really difficult because I also don’t know what to do with that information once I get it. When they say this is how much PFAS is in his blood, I don’t know who is going to tell me, oh this is what that means for him,” she says.

The McNaughtons are expecting Jack’s blood test results to be back a few days before Christmas.

State and local officials haven’t determined the scope of this toxic plume. Officials have also not yet determined how many dump sites Wolverine used.

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