Wolverine Worldwide, $ 3 million will pay $ 54 million in a PFAS-class deal

LANSING, MI – Wolverine Worldwide and 3M will pay $ 54 million to Michigan property owners damaged by PFAS contamination as part of a proposed settlement in a class action case filed in the wake of the pollution discovery five years ago.

If approved by a judge, the money would be split between approximately 1,700 residences in North Kent County, where Wolverine once dumped tannery sludge laden with PFAS, according to a settlement settlement filed Sept. 15 in the United States District Court in Lansing. .

The deal would resolve nearly all disputes arising from the 2017 discovery of severe PFAS contamination in the Rockford and Belmont area, a pivotal moment in Michigan’s ongoing “chemicals forever” investigation.

The case centered on property claims, such as impairment, and ruled out personal injury and requests for medical mentoring that are often part of contamination lawsuits.

Also excluded are approximately 275 individual plaintiffs who have separately sued Wolverine and 3M in Kent County Circuit Court. Those cases were all solved last winter.

“I think it’s a very good recovery for this class,” said Esther Berezofsky of Motley Rice of New Jersey, who was a lead attorney on the case.

“We are asking the court to approve this deal because we believe it leads to both closure and real compensation for the people who have been harmed,” said Berezofsky.

To be eligible for a settlement payment, a person must own property as of November 1, 2017 that used well water in what state regulators refer to as the North Kent study area, an area of ​​approximately 25 miles. square of Plainfield and Algoma township and the city of Rockford with some of the highest levels of PFAS ever found in private wells.

Payment amounts would be based on factors such as the severity of the contamination at each property, the number of people affected at each property, whether the home received a water filtration system from Wolverine, and whether the property was able to connect. at Plainfield Township, municipal water extension project is underway.

The largest portion, about $ 11 million, is reserved for 111 properties with PFAS surveys on state standards for drinking water up to 500 parts per trillion (ppt), according to court documents. Approximately $ 285,000 is earmarked for a property with PFAS detection greater than 500 ppt. Properties in the study area with minimal detection would receive lower amounts.

Notices would be sent to eligible properties if the settlement was approved by US District Court Judge Hala Jarbou, who began presiding over the case in September 2020.

The class action case dates back to December 2017, when Belmont’s Beverly Zimmerman and seven others sued Wolverine and 3M for damages in a federal court.

The case arose amid growing public concern about PFAS in North Kent County Groundwater three months after MLive revealed that severe contamination had been detected in private drinking water wells around the landfill Wolverine’s 1960s tannery waste on House Street in Belmont.

The chemicals began seeping through local aquifers after Wolverine began treating his Hush Puppies-brand shoe leather in 1958 with 3M Scotchgard, a waterproofing agent made with PFAS chemicals, and dumping manufacturing waste from his tannery. of Rockford in unlined trenches on House Street and other landfills around the area.

The filing of a class action followed several local council meetings, the formation of the Michigan PFAS Task Force (MPART), and was marked by the appearance of environmental activist and legal counsel Erin Brockovich, who spoke to a meeting in Comstock Park organized by the lawyers of one of the numerous companies that ended up working on the case.

At the end of 2019, the case was consolidated with two more subsequent federal class action suits, which, together, survived 3M’s attempt to fold them all in a huge tranche of pending lawsuits against the Minnesota company related to its production. of AFFF fire-fighting foam.

In June 2021, Judge Jarbou cleared the property damage claims in the case, but rejected the negligence claims against 3M and Wolverine related to personal injury, writing in agreement with the companies that adequate evidence of Injuries from PFAS Exposure and The “increased risk” of developing a serious illness caused by PFAS pollution “is not known harm under Michigan law.”

In a statement, Wolverine said this and 3M “are delighted to have resolved this lawsuit and believe this agreement represents another important step towards resolving this issue and doing the right thing for our community.”

3M directed the requests to an online statement stating that the company “remains committed to working collaboratively with communities and sharing our scientific knowledge about PFAS to achieve our common goals.”

Berezofsky, who also helped Flint residents win a $ 626 million settlement with the state of Michigan over the drinking water crisis, called the Wolverine case “hard fought.”

“This has been very actively litigation for a long time,” he said. The case involved “a lot of movement practice, a lot of experts on both sides. It is a very complex case ».

The settlement negotiations have been “very protracted,” he said.

If approved by Judge Jarbou, the deal would close most of the lawsuits filed against Wolverine for PFAS contamination in Kent County.

At the end of April, approximately 275 individual cases filed in Kent County 17th Circuit Court by residents represented by the Varnum law firm in Grand Rapids were quietly dismissed by Judge George J. Quist following confidential settlement agreements.

Varnum’s attorneys would not comment on the agreements, which are subject to nondisclosure clauses. Payments and other settlement details in these cases are not known.

Plaintiffs in the Varnum cases include Sandy Wynn-Stelt, a Belmont psychologist who became a national PFAS activist following the discovery of the contamination and the death of her husband, Joel, who died of liver cancer in 2016 after drinking contaminated water.

According to a federal bond filing in April, 3M and Wolverine were able to get two of the five individual cases of Varnum “steeple” selected for trial in 2021 and settle the others for an “insignificant amount” last year. October.

Wolverine remains in litigation with several insurers and owners of Belmont’s Boulder Creek Golf Club, which sued the company in 2018 claiming it was hiding PFAS risk when Wolverine used the property, then an aggregate mine named Northeast Gravel, as a landfill. of waste in the 70s.

According to a May filing in Wolverine’s federal insurance case, the company has spent more than $ 105 million to date defending itself in the Varnum cases, class action, the Boulder Creek case, and a Michigan state case that has resulted in a $ 69.5 million settlement. That money helped finance ongoing extensions of Plainfield’s municipal water network. 3M invested $ 55 million for that deal.

Wolverine spent $ 73.9 million on “environmental and other related costs” in 2021, including settlement accruals, according to its annual report. The company posted sales of $ 2.4 billion last year.

3M remains a party in thousands of lawsuits across the country associated with PFAS exposure.

As for cleanup, Wolverine is preparing to build a plug on top of the rubbish buried in his former landfill. The company has yet to begin treating PFAS-contaminated groundwater at its former tannery along the Rogue River in Rockford.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) are evaluating landfill and tanneries sites for inclusion on the Federal Superfund List, a list of the nation’s most contaminated sites.

This assessment revealed previously unknown PFAS contamination this year at Wolverine’s old shoe sole manufacturing plant near the White Pine Trail in Rockford.

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