Cancer, Thyroid Problems Plague Wolverine Dump Neighbors

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Cancer, thyroid problems plague Wolverine dump neighbors

House Street NE residents voice concerns about Wolverine World Wide dumpsite contamination
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Gallery: House Street NE residents voice concerns about Wolverine World Wide dumpsite contamination

By Garret Ellison

[email protected]

BELMONT, MI -- When Joel Stelt retired as a protective services worker for Kent County, he made a list of travel destinations to take his wife, Sandy, a clinical psychologist, to visit over the next decade.

Joel and Sandy invested their life savings into a home on House Street NE they bought 24 years ago because the two wanted a large lot and woods around. It was the home in which the couple planned to live out their retirement years together.

That was before Joel died on March 26, 2016 at age 61 of liver cancer.

The sudden and unexpected loss devastated family and friends. But today, Sandy Wynn-Stelt wants answers. That's because 17 months after her husband died, state workers and a consultant for Wolverine World Wide knocked on her door with terrible news.

Her well, from which the couple drank water for decades, is poisoned with extremely elevated levels of toxic waste chemicals that are linked to liver problems and other serious illnesses.

Her neighbors' wells are also poisoned, but hers is the worst.

"You lose your husband and it's the worst thing on Earth," she said, eyes watering. "But you slowly get back. You slowly kind of come back to life.... I remember in June this year thinking 'I feel like I'm getting my joy back.' And in July, I get these government people walking up my driveway saying, 'we think you've got poisoned groundwater.

"And it's just brought it all back."

Wolverine dump neighbor: 'I don't know how they give me my husband back'

According to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Wynn-Stelt's home on the 1800 block of House Street NE is contaminated with the highest combined levels of perfluoroctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluoroctanoic acid (PFOA) that state toxicologists investigating the groundwater pollution have yet seen in a private drinking water well.

The combined PFOS and PFOA level in her well is 37,800 parts-per-trillion (ppt) -- roughly 540 times above the Environmental Protection Agency health advisory level of 70-ppt.

Wynn-Stelt lives directly across from 1855 House St. NE, a fenced-off property owned by Wolverine World Wide, the Rockford-based global footwear company that became a multi-billion dollar business on the popularity of Hush Puppies, a casual suede shoe worn by Hollywood stars, music icons and U.S. presidents.

In the 1960s, Wolverine used the 76-acre undeveloped land as a dump site for hazardous sludge waste generated by its former tannery in Rockford, where the company treated pigskin with Scotchgard, a fabric protector that repels water and stains.

3M developed Scotchgard in 1956 and two years later, Wolverine used it to develop a pigskin nubuck leather for Hush Puppies, which the company's website boasts today as featuring "the first performance leather in the industry that offered water, oil and stain repellency without changing the look and feel of the leather."

Six decades later, that innovation's toxic legacy has surfaced in local drinking water.

Waste barrels, leather hides dot land outside Wolverine dump

Life interrupted by a water crisis

Meaghan Schweinzger took her 5-year-old daughter to get a blood test recently.

The test was to check for precursors to a suite of symptoms health officials link to exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances called PFAS, (also called perfluorinated chemicals, or PFCs). The class of chemicals includes PFOS and PFOA, which is in her family's well.

PFOS was the key ingredient in Scotchgard.

Thankfully, the results came back in normal ranges. But any peace of mind there is tempered by future unknowns about how exposure to the water could manifest since Meaghan, her husband Ryan and their two children moved to House Street in 2011.

"That's today," she said. "Do we have to do this once a year from now on? Do we wait five years? How long until we can be comfortable with, 'OK, they are free and clear.'

"The question will forever be in our heads."

Sitting together on Wynn-Stelt's deck, the Schweinzgers and fellow House Street neighbors Tedd Ryfiak and Rob Versluis described a summer of anxiety, anger and confusion punctuated by mixed messages from experts and a growing frustration and resentment toward Wolverine and its environmental consultant, Rose & Westra, which has been their only point of contact with the shoemaker.

Normal life on House Street was shattered in July when the DEQ, Rose & Westra and officials with the Kent County Health Department and Michigan Department of Health and Human Services began knocking on doors, asking to test neighborhood well water.

Toxic chemicals pollute drinking water near old tannery dump

As the summer progressed, the once-disparate neighbors formed a camaraderie around their shared plight. They have coped by bathing and eating meals at relatives' homes, buying office-style bottled water systems for their cooking and hygiene at home, and finding rueful humor where they can in a tragic situation.

Home improvement tasks seem unimportant now. Lawn maintenance and gardening fell by the wayside. Versluis stopped watering his lawn. His home ownership pride is lost. The Schweinzgers were planning to build stairs down to the backyard off their deck, but why bother now? They were planning to live on House Street long term, "but it's not really realistic if you can only use your kitchen sink," she said.

Feeling abandoned by Wolverine

The test results came back alongside bottled water and gift cards.

Some homes got a single 24-pack case of bottled water and two $50 Meijer gift cards from Rose & Westra. Others got a second or third case of water. Those were followed by an under-sink water filtration unit for the kitchen.

The systems don't remove all PFAS, but do bring concentrations below the EPA level. The filters don't last forever and cost money to replace.

After the filters went in at some homes (not everyone accepted the filter, or trusts it), the group of neighbors say contact with Wolverine through Rose & Westra vanished.

Wolverine's public claims of "commitment to the community" ring hollow, they say. Most left a townhall meeting at Rockford High School held Sept. 12 to address the water contamination feeling somewhat forgotten, as if the company's attention has already moved on to testing wells in an expanding perimeter around the dump.

Questions, skepticism greet Wolverine at water pollution meeting

"We're all paying for our own water," Wynn-Stelt said.

"They could multi-task," she said. "They could build shoes and boots as the same time. I'm betting they could take care of us and test other wells at the same time."

After Wynn-Stelt declined to have a kitchen filter installed because she already has a reverse osmosis system that went in a few years ago, she said there's been no contact with Rose & Westra.

"I've never had contact with Wolverine. I've never heard a word," she said. "Not 'sorry.' Not 'my apologies.' Not 'F-you' -- nothing. I've heard nothing from Wolverine. It's just been Rose & Westra." And that last contact was months ago.

She wonders whether possible legal repercussions are playing a role in the lack of communication.

"It almost feels like once we contacted a lawyer, everything came to a screeching halt," she said. "Wolverine stood in that meeting, made a big deal about 'we feel your pain, we want to rectify this.' At least for me, I feel like I've got nothing."

Why hasn't Wolverine CEO Blake Krueger made any statements, asked Versluis, who noted that Krueger promoted Wolverine's $2.6 million Hurricane Harvey victim relief but hasn't publicly addressed the poisoning in the company's own backyard.

"Why not spout off on what's going on here?" he asked. "We haven't heard from him."

Responding to those sentiments, Wolverine issued a statement.

"We understand and respect the frustration and anxiety," the company wrote. "At the same time, there are no simple solutions or shortcuts for determining exactly what is happening at these sites or for setting the most effective path forward."

"On multiple occasions, including the recent town hall meeting, Wolverine has stressed its commitment to thorough testing and to ensuring residents have water they can trust during this process and into the future. We have been in contact with residents throughout the process - onsite and through calls and emails - and those wanting to get in touch can reach the company at 616-866-5627 or [email protected]," the company wrote.

Many health concerns remain

In 1991, Brandi Glaske's family moved in next to the dump on House Street. She was 11. Four years later, at age 15, she had an ovarian tumor removed.

She has three children and experienced a dangerous condition caused by high blood pressure called preeclampsixa during each pregnancy.

All three of her children were born underweight. One almost died. Another was put on a ventilator when she was born. Over the years, Glaske has struggled to understand what caused her health problems when other family members have given birth to healthy, full-term babies. After her youngest was born, she decided to have a hysterectomy.

"That was tragic," she said. "It was a really hard thing to go through. No one in my family has had to go through this."

Wynn-Stelt has been diagnosed with two thyroid disorders: hypothyroidism and Graves' Disease. She's also experienced gout and reproductive issues.

Ryfiak's 3-year-old son has an enlarged lymph node on his neck, a thyroid cancer symptom. His ex-wife experienced pregnancy-induced hypertension.

State toxicologists say exposure to PFOA has been linked through human studies to kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, pregnancy-induced hypertension, thyroid problems and cholesterol issues. In animal testing, PFOS exposure is linked to thyroid and liver problems, and reproductive and immune system impacts.

Incidences like the death of Joel Stelt and other accounts of cancer and health problems on House Street and at other known and suspected Wolverine tannery waste dump sites are prompting Kent County to start its largest-ever cancer study.

A former U.S. Marine, Ryfiak is angry. Very angry.

"I'm going to ask for the world," he said. 'They have poisoned my son for his entire life. They poisoned me for the last three years. They poisoned my ex-wife. They poisoned all three of my kids."

"I want an entire home filtration system and I don't give a f--- what it costs. It will be an entire home filtration system, point of entry."

"I want health care for me and anyone that lived with me for the rest of their lives because I don't know how this is going to affect us later," he said. "I don't know how it will affect my son in 30 years. In 30 years, when my son has hypertension ... every disease under the sun because of this, is he going to be able to go back to Rose & Westra or Wolverine and say, 'Hey, you guys poisoned me when I was 3 years old. You're paying for this,' or is he going to be out millions of dollars because he can't afford his health care?"

Wolverine executive on leather litter: 'We shouldn't have done it'

Scotchgard chemical ails fish where tannery scraps litter river

Tannery waste dumped at landfill tied to municipal water pollution

Kent County to study cancer near Wolverine waste dumps

 

Source : http://www.mlive.com/news/grand-rapids/index.ssf/2017/10/house_street_dump_neighbors.html

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