Doesn’t it sound idyllic? Like who wouldn’t want to live here? Except for the
environmental contamination thing. Aside from that, it’s beautiful. This house is technically
a hazardous waste site. Wolverine Worldwide, the company that makes
Hush Puppies shoes, says it legally disposed of tannery waste in
the area from 1958 to 1970. That waste turned out to
leach toxic chemicals into the groundwater for years. Now, the families
of House Street are living with the consequences. I don’t go to the faucet at
all now, never to drink. You’ve got to put bottled water, you know, if you have guests. Every couple of days you gotta hoist that
big thing, and you saw I got a delivery. So now I’ve got to
carry those all into the house. So this property is worth zero. About 15 minutes from Sandy’s house is
the site of the old Wolverine tannery in downtown Rockford. We were thinking then maybe
we don’t even need lawyers. Wolverine’s a good company town and maybe
they’ll work with us on this. And we truly thought gosh, if
we could get free shoes. Who doesn’t want that every year? That was about a 30
second discussion of free shoes. And then we went, yeah. We probably need a lawyer. For years, the Rogue River has
churned out this frothy foam. Just before we visited in June 2019,
official signs went up warning people it’s toxic. I lived in the town. We drank from the river, right there,
out there where the foam is. Right there, the water intake
was right down there. This group of Rockford residents worked for
years to blow the whistle on contamination left behind from
Wolverine’s old tannery. I have so many situations where
I knew I was being watched. They had their eye on me. But bottom line, I think
they were really afraid. I think they were really afraid
the truth would come out. And I believe some of them probably knew. Along the way, there have been
police reports, lawsuits, town halls, blood tests and a lot of water samples. But before all that was a company
town and waterproof Hush Puppies shoes. Today, Wolverine Worldwide is a $2.4 billion global corporation spanning roughly
200 countries and territories. It’s home to brands like Chaco, Sperry,
Merrell, Keds and of course, Hush Puppies. Go back to 1903, Wolverine was a
family business making just 300 pairs of shoes a day out of
a factory in Rockford, Michigan. The founders built a tannery to
supply the factory with tough, durable horsehide. 50 years later, the
Hush Puppies brand was born. And Hush Puppies weren’t
just any old shoes. They were waterproof thanks to a
special coating made with 3M Scotchgard. That Scotchgard coating used a chemical
compound that was relatively new at the time called PFAS. Short for per-
or polyfluoroalkyl substances. The compound was invented by scientists in
the late 30s, early 40s, and it turned out to be really good at
putting out fires, resisting oil and in the case of Hush
Puppies, repelling water. Today, scientists know that PFAS don’t
break down in the environment, they accumulate in our bodies and have
been linked to some pretty serious health effects. But back in the 50s and 60s,
PFAS were a manufacturer’s dream come true. And Wolverine says 3M assured
customers its Scotchgard was safe. By the 1960s, Wolverine was the
biggest employer in Rockford and Hush Puppies were becoming a global hit. Everyone from Nick Cage
to Keith Richards, Dr. Evil and Mini Me, The Beatles,
even Princess Diana were sporting the shoes. By 1963, one in ten Americans had
a pair of Hush Puppies, and in 1965, the shoemaker went public on
the New York Stock Exchange, changing its name to Wolverine Worldwide. Then business really started
to take off. By 1989, its international
wholesale sales surpassed U.S. sales, and in the 90s it began
buying up shoe brands like Merrell and Harley-Davidson. In 2005, sales topped $1
billion for the first time, and in 2009, the old tannery in
Rockford was scheduled for demolition. Wolverine was a huge
piece of Rockford. You know the Wolverine Y, they
sponsored the YMCA here in town. They’ve put on fireworks. They’ve done a lot in the community. So how did we get to, well, this? The ultra contaminated tannery
site in downtown Rockford. For years, it’s leached high levels
of the likely carcinogen into the Rogue, leading to fish advisories
and contaminated river foam. Let’s start here with A.J., Lynn and Rick. A big reason the town knows about
PFAS contamination today is thanks to this group of Rockford residents. Lynn’s a retired piano teacher. A.J. is the lawyer. And Rick is the scientist. When Lynn heard about the tannery demolition
back in 2009, she got worried about the potential contamination just a
couple blocks from her house. So she started poking around. The more she asked,
the more she learned. One of the people who helped
her identify potential contamination spots was Harvey White, a
retired Wolverine tannery worker. Lynn hired A.J. to help strategize. He has experience on the other side
of the issue, working for companies that need to comply
with environmental regulation. I felt that there was a group
of citizens that were really being marginalized actively. And that kind of got
me a little upset. As a citizen, even though I devoted
hundreds of hours to educating myself, to talking to people, to taking
complex information and trying to understand it and then simplify it, still,
she’s just a citizen, you know. Lynn tried to raise her concerns with
state and local officials, but for the most part, she
wasn’t taken seriously. So she petitioned the federal EPA to
look into the Wolverine demolition site In a company town like this, I was villainized. You just don’t speak
against a company. And I felt like I wore
the Scarlet A for activism. I was treated quite badly by many,
you know, just the whole network. The current city manager of Rockford
said while he can’t control what happened in the past, the city of
Rockford is actively engaged with the entities involved to address community
concerns over public health and safety within the city. It was really hard not to give up. Remember? It was really discouraging. Lynn needed a scientist to back her up,
so she went to Rick, who had researched tanneries before. She actually came to my office with
a big container of papers and things like that. I sat down with them and looked
at everything and I decided, yes. So there was clearly enough evidence
for me to get involved. Lynn, A.J. and Rick spent years conducting
research, interviews and urging officials to test the soil and water. Those tests eventually revealed contamination
from a slew of toxic chemicals. The mantra we would hear again and
again is there’s no known contamination. And again, if one is not
looking and hasn’t sampled the site, it’s easy to say that
there is no known contamination. Wolverine said it adamantly disagrees with
the criticism that it took too long to respond to concerns about
the contamination and that it’s been proactive in ensuring all affected residents
have access to safe drinking water. When Wolverine finally came out
with maps of the contamination in 2018, they almost exactly lined up with
the map Lynn drew years ago. She was right. I was unprepared to see how much
actual exposure when they did the blood testing. There was an adult that has
higher levels than the 3M workers just from drinking the
water around the tannery. I moved here with my
husband in I think 1992. We wanted a place that
was private with no neighbors. That was our goal. We didn’t care how many
bathrooms, how many bedrooms. We just wanted no neighbors. And as you hear, we got a lot
of birds for neighbors anddeer and rabbit and raccoon. But that’s it. This is Joel. And then this is my nephews, Eric and
Ethan, and that’s my brother in law, Art This is up and Clingmans
Dome in Tennessee, North Carolina. If you’ve ever been there, the spiral
staircase when you get up there. Joel got some marbles and decided he was
going to hike to the top of Clingmans Dome and then roll the
marble all the way down. All of a sudden everybody at Clingmans
Dome that day is like standing back, cheering for the marble to
get all the way down. It took us probably a half hour,
but eventually the marble made its way all the way down Clingmans Dome. So we have fond memories of that too. What a jokester. He was nonstop – He was a kid. He was a nonstop jokester. Yes, absolutely. Yes. I mean, you lose your husband. There’s nothing worse than that. He was my best friend and, I’m sorry. You constantly sit with the wonder
of, did that contribute to this? And what’s this going to do for me? Because I have exceptionally high rates
in my blood as well. But you’re here alone
having to manage that. And so there’s a lot of times that
you sit here by yourself and feel scared and feel angry and feel frustrated. So that light will get brighter. It’s just one of those
it takes a while. That’s, this right here, is the
whole home filter system, affectionately known as Megatron. It’s got four, carbon, granular activated
carbon filters that the water goes through, I guess. I don’t quite understand all
the mechanics of it. I’m kind of Forest Gump-ing my way through
this whole thing, I want to be honest about that. I was sitting here watching the news one
night and and there was a story about Senator Peters was doing a
hearing on PFAS contamination in Washington and it was
open to the public. And I remember literally
saying to my cat. Well, heck, I’m the public. I might as well go,
he should listen to me. Senator Peters came to Grand Rapids and
in November and did a field hearing that I got to speak at. And I just went back
to Washington in May. And then we’re going to
Boston next week to speak. Yeah, I don’t know
what I’m doing Don’t be that
impressed by it This tiny dot right
here, that’s Rockford. Those more than 700 other
dots represent contaminated public water systems, military bases, airports and
industrial plants all across the country. Here in Boston, people
from all across the U.S., even some from across the world,
came to talk about PFAS. Do you guys mind if I use that? Because I look like a
garden gnome standing here. My name is David Bond,
I teach at Bennington College. I’m an accidental researcher, I did
not set out to study this. My name is Brenda Hampton, I’m the administrator of
concerned citizens from Lawrence County, Alabama. Our county consists of like 33,049 residents, it is down from
34,339 residents due to the contamination of our drinking water. The biggest speaker of the day
was someone named Rob Bilott. He’s a bit of a legend
in the world of PFAS. Rob was one of the first lawyers to
really take a big PFAS manufacturer to court and win. In 2001, he led a
class action suit against DuPont. But he wasn’t seeking payouts. Rather, he wanted the manufacturers to
pay for more research on PFAS. In 2017, Dupont and Chemours
settled multi district litigation involving more than 3,500 PFAS lawsuits for
$670 million and denied any wrongdoing. In Washington, PFAS has made its way
into at least 20 bills this session. We in the federal government have
stood by as industrial manufacturers polluted our households, our drinking
water and our food supply. The EPA said it’s working on making
a regulatory determination on two types of PFAS by the end of 2019. As it stands now, there’s no
federally enforceable drinking water standard when it comes to PFAS. If it’s not a food or
medicine, there’s very little government regulation. The government leaves it to manufacturers
and we need to change that paradigm, I think, and really think about,
you know, what are the health implications of a particular chemical or
set of chemicals before those are released to the public. On a smaller scale, Wolverine is
facing hundreds of lawsuits from residents, including Sandy. It’s big. I mean, in the case of Rockford. This is one of the largest
sites anywhere in the country. We’re talking about waste that was
disposed of many decades ago. And yet it is still found in
the groundwater at concentrations that are among the highest anywhere
in the world. Oh, I think there’s plenty
of blame to go around. I think we can spread
that quite eagerly. I know I’m not to blame. I know my neighbors aren’t to blame. I know their children
aren’t to blame. But we seem to be the
ones bearing the brunt of it. We represent a family whose well failed
just from being old and out of date So that that’s normal. That happens. But of course, what normally happens is and
you get a well permit and you put a new well in and
you’re you’re back in business. But the state will not
issue a new well permit. And so now they have
no normal source water. They don’t have a well. They don’t have a municipal hookup. So they now have to rely on
water being trucked in to their house. All we can do is bring
the case to the court. But the court has over 250 cases,
so they’re not going to get heard quickly. And that’s, it’s a problem. And I wish there was something that I
could do to make it go better or faster, but I can’t get
them a new well. Wolverine won’t buy their house
and help them move. So they’re, they can’t afford to move
on their own without getting the money back out of their house. So they are just stuck in this mess. The first PFAS case in Kent County is
expected to be heard in March 2020. Wolverine says that many of the
allegations against it are misleading and that they haven’t slowed in their
commitment to helping the community. As of March 2019, Wolverine has spent
over $17 million on water quality remediation. Wolverine is currently designing
and engineering a water filtration system to stop two types of
PFAS from flowing from its former tannery site into the Rogue River. Wolverine’s agreement with the North Kent
Sewer Authority was approved on August 1st, 2019. And it’s suing 3M for selling them
the compound in the first place. Wolverine claims 3M knew about the
environmental risks of PFAS and failed to warn its customers or accept
any responsibility for the impact of Scotchgard. 3M said it doesn’t comment on
ongoing litigation, but that it acted reasonably and responsibly in connection
with products containing PFAS and stands behind its
environmental stewardship record. But there’s many more PFAS-related cases
playing out in courtrooms across the country. One of the biggest mistakes made
by regulators and responsible parties is to discount the community, and I think
there is an assumption that the community is ignorant. They wouldn’t understand the issues. But in each of our communities
are scientists, regulatory experts, doctors who are fully capable of grasping even
the most subtle aspects of this. And hopefully if anything comes out of
this, it’s going to be: don’t discount the communities. I think we became like those
little trick birthday candles that people think, oh, let’s just blow it
up and then it relights. And then like, oh, my gosh,
we gotta to do more. And they go, pfft, and then
it relights bigger and brighter. And they’re like, and they blow even
harder and it gets brighter yet. And it’s like they don’t
know what to do. And then all of a sudden, then,
there’s more lights like this and more people like that. And then they blow harder and by doing
it, they only make the candles grow brighter. To me, that’s an image
of what activism and being involved