Litigation update: WWW Asks Courts to Dismiss Plainfield and Algoma Townships from Federal PFAS Lawsuit, Claims Municipal Water is Unnecessary

Plainfield and Algoma Townships, Michigan, February 13, 2019 – In a stunning about-face, Wolverine World Wide has asked the U.S. District Court to dismiss the PFAS lawsuit filed by Plainfield and Algoma townships on the premise that municipal water is no longer necessary.

For the past 18 months, the Rockford shoemaker was representing in public and in private that it understood municipal water would have to be extended to the northern Kent County areas adversely affected by its disposal of PFAS-laden shoe hides. Wolverine met numerous times with Township officials, attorneys and engineers during that time to cooperatively work on designing municipal water extensions it now says are unnecessary.

“This is a complete 180 and a substantial betrayal of the good faith extended by the townships,” said municipal environmental attorney Douglas Van Essen. “This attack against the townships’ very involvement in the lawsuit is inconsistent with what Wolverine has said all along. The company has turned its backs definitively on residents who have been waiting for it to do the right thing and fulfill its promise to the community it calls home.”

Van Essen noted that Plainfield Township has expended more than $500,000 in engineering fees in anticipation of beginning spring construction on four loop extensions designed to deliver municipal water to more than 300 affected homeowners in the House Street and Wellington Ridge areas of the contamination. It did so with the understanding that WWW would reimburse those costs through an expected December 2018 consent decree that would have required WWW to provide residents with a safe, clean and permanent water solution.

To facilitate this goal, Plainfield and Algoma townships entered the federal lawsuit in March 2018 with the support and encouragement of WWW that they could be ‘at the table’ in drafting that December consent decree. At Wolverine’s request, and with good-faith consent from MDEQ and townships, the Hon. Janet T. Neff extended the company’s litigation response deadline to mid-December 2108 with the expectation that Wolverine would sign a consent decree prior to that deadline.

Instead, WWW abruptly broke off settlement talks in November and added 3M to the lawsuit in December. Even as Wolverine announced it wanted to delay implementation of those extensions until 3M contributed, Van Essen said the company affirmed its commitment towards municipal water extensions.

“Wolverine makes good shoes, but it has proven to be completely incompetent in the waste disposal business – and now is proving to be incompetent in handling a pollution crisis,” said Van Essen, who represents both Plainfield and Algoma townships in the federal court proceeding. “The company appears to have no coherent strategy other than deny and delay – an approach that continues to do harm to residents whose wells have been contaminated with PFAS.”

“Since the beginning of this crisis, the experts have known that municipal water is the only viable long-term solution to the mess Wolverine World Wide has created. The MDEQ and townships are now joining forces to compel this result through a judgment in federal court and are confident the court will order municipal water extensions – and require WWW to pay for them.

“However, now that we know we will have to obtain that judgment involuntarily through litigation, which always take time, we will have to regulate WWW’s continued provision of bottled water and whole-house filters. We will need to make sure that we approve of the source of their bottled water and how they are installing and maintaining the whole house filters as well as monitoring the filters’ effectiveness.”

Van Essen cited Wolverine’s ignorance of the building code as an example of the need for regulation, noting the Company “apparently did not know” that plumbing permits were necessary to install the filters.  The company hooked up an undisclosed number of whole-house filters without any consideration of building code requirements and without any public permits or oversight.

“I don’t know of another polluter who has decided it’s going to get into the water business and does so indefinitely and without regulation,” Van Essen said. “If we have learned anything from the Flint water crisis, we should realize inexperienced parties cannot be put in charge of providing drinking water to residents without close supervision.

“This is especially important when that party is the polluter who caused the mess in the first place. It is one thing if Wolverine steps in to provide water in an emergency. It’s quite another thing if it becomes institutionalized – then it’s a de facto water system, which means Wolverine needs to be regulated.”

As a result of the delay in obtaining municipal water and a need to now monitor WWW’s ongoing water activities, both Townships expect to establish a regulatory ordinance system in early 2019.  

The Townships expect a conference with the federal court during the first quarter of 2019.

 If you have any questions or concerns, please send an email to comments@plainfieldmi.org.