Update on PFAS litigation: June 13

Court Orders WWW, 3M, MDEQ and Townships to Fast Track an ‘Appropriate Remedy’ for House Street Water by July 8

Noting that “the public interest is paramount,” U.S. District Judge Janet. T. Neff has asked Wolverine World Wide and the other parties involved in a federal lawsuit to find an “appropriate remedy” so she can address a final solution to well water contaminated by PFAS in northern Kent County. 

In a ruling released Wednesday afternoon, Judge Neff ordered the Rockford shoemaker, chemical manufacturer 3M, the former Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the lawyer for Plainfield and Algoma townships to “reach a consensus on a (procedural) plan” for residents in the House Street area no later than July 8. She noted in her four-page ruling that “the public – and most particularly those whose lives are affected by the contamination – deserve the utmost expediency and concern in remedying the infringement on their health, safety and welfare.”  

The ruling comes days after a Kent County judge denied a request to expedite a lawsuit on behalf of a Belmont couple whose well has failed and now rely on drinking water delivered via tanker truck by WWW. Terry and Tom Hula told local media after the decision that they were “at that breaking point” over constant worries about access to clean, reliable drinking water.

It also comes on the heels of the Plainfield Township Board beginning consideration of a new ordinance designed “to protect the public health, safety and welfare” of residents whose wells have been contaminated with PFAS and now rely on the creators of that contamination to act as a water supplier. If approved, the ordinance would require waste creators to secure a license to continue delivering water and maintaining whole-house filters and fulfill certain obligations, including providing addresses of all affected properties, test results, details about the filters and financial assurances.  

The Townships’ attorney Douglas Van Essen applauded Judge Neff for her fast-tracking a path to an appropriate remedy – which the townships have maintained from the start is connecting affected residents to Plainfield’s municipal water system. 

“We have been asking the court for expedited consideration of the permanent water solution in light of the burden this is placing on area residents like the Hulas,” Van Essen explained. “We’re sensitive to their situation. Wednesday’s ruling demonstrated that Judge Neff is equally concerned by asking for a major acceleration of the process to resolve this issue because of the overwhelming public interest.

 “We are ready to sit down in good faith with Wolverine World Wide and the MDEQ as soon as possible to agree on a permanent water remedy and timeline as the judge has requested.”

Plainfield Township Superintendent Cameron Van Wyngarden said: “We are pleased by the court’s ruling and hope Wolverine World Wide will stop stalling and start living up to its obligations to area residents. We are also simultaneously considering an ordinance that will give us some enforcement muscle so we can ensure affected residents with whole-house filters are receiving drinking water that they can trust.

“It’s time for Wolverine to step up, do the right thing and clean up the mess it made. We are actively pursuing regulations in the event the company continues to fail in its responsibilities.” 

Earlier this year, engineering firm Prein & Newhof estimated it would cost WWW $62 million to construct water main extensions designed to deliver municipal water to affected homeowners in Plainfield and Algoma townships. The shoemaker had bargained in good faith for 18 months with the townships, only to do an about-face in December 2018 and claim municipal water is no longer necessary and that whole-house filters would do instead.

If that was the case, Van Essen said the state of Michigan could require the publicly traded Wolverine World Wide to establish upfront and finance a trust fund with anywhere from $500 million to $1 billion to guarantee future maintenance and replacement costs for existing homes as well as homes and business that will be affected in the future as the forever chemical plume spreads into new areas. He noted that Michigan could also require additional millions from WWW to pay for ongoing water testing in the area to scientifically plot the movement of the plume and protect new homes as well as ensuring all filters are actually working as they are supposed to be. 

“These filters don’t give you a daily reading of how well they are doing,” Van Essen noted. “They require an element of daily faith and, over time, their effectiveness does decline. We will have to know exactly when that decline occurs through regular and ongoing residential water testing to make sure everyone is protected.”

In the interim, Plainfield Township has taken steps to draft an ordinance that would give it the power to step in and oversee the actions of WWW and other waste creators who are acting as water suppliers. In Van Essen’s presentation to the Board, he questioned why residents should trust the companies that polluted their water to be in charge of providing them with clean water to drink and ensuring the filters are working at all times.  

 “These companies couldn’t protect our community when they were using PFAS in the operations in which they specialize,” Van Essen said. “What makes anyone think that they can protect our community with a water system in which they have no expertise?”