Wolverine Worldwide, 3M to pay $54M in PFAS class settlement

LANSING, MI — Wolverine Worldwide and 3M will pay $54 million to Michigan property owners harmed by PFAS contamination under 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 divided among roughly 1,700 residences in northern Kent County where Wolverine once dumped PFAS-laden tannery waste sludges, according to a settlement agreement filed Sept. 15 in US District Court in Lansing.

The settlement would resolve nearly all tort litigation arising from the 2017 discovery of severe PFAS contamination in the Rockford and Belmont area — a seminal moment in the ongoing investigation of “forever chemicals” in Michigan.

The case centered around property claims, such as loss of value, and excluded personal injury and medical mentoring claims which are often part of contamination lawsuits.

It also excludes about 275 individual plaintiffs who separately sued Wolverine and 3M in Kent County Circuit Court. Those cases were all settled this past winter.

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

“We’re asking the court to approve this settlement because we believe it brings both closure and real compensation to people who have been harmed,” Berezofsky said.

To be eligible for a settlement payout, a person must have owned property as of Nov. 1, 2017 which used well water in what state regulators define as the North Kent Study Area — a roughly 25-square-mile area of ​​Plainfield and Algoma townships and the city of Rockford with the some of the highest levels of PFAS ever found in private wells .

Payout amounts would be based on factors such as the severity of 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 has been able to connect to the ongoing Plainfield Township municipal water extension project.

The largest chunk, about $11 million, is reserved for 111 properties with PFAS detections over state drinking water standards up to 500-parts-per-trillion (ppt), according to court documents. About $285,000 is set aside for one property with PFAS detection above 500-ppt. Properties in the study area with minimal detection would receive lower amounts.

Notices would be mailed to eligible properties if the deal is approved by US District Court Judge Hala Jarbou, who began presiding over the case in Sept. 2020.

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

The case arose amid mounting public concern over PFAS in the north Kent County groundwater three months after MLive revealed that severe contamination had been found in private drinking water wells around Wolverine’s 1960s-era tannery waste dump on House Street in Belmont.

The chemicals began seeing through the local groundwater after Wolverine began treating its Hush Puppies brand shoe leather in 1958 with 3M Scotchgard, a waterproofing agent made with PFAS chemicals, and dumping manufacturing waste from its Rockford tannery in unlined trenches on House Street and other dump sites around the area.

The class action case filing followed several local townhall meetings, the formation of Michigan’s PFAS Task Force (MPART), and was marked by an appearance from environmental activist and legal consultant Erin Brockovich, who spoke at a meeting in Comstock Park organized by attorneys from one of the numerous firms which ended up working on the case.

In late 2019, the case was consolidated with two other subsequent federal class actions, which, togetherd 3M’s attempt to fold them all into a massive tranche of ongoing lawsuits against the Minnesota company related to its manufacture of AFFF firefighting foam.

In June 2021, Judge Jarbou allowed property damage claims in the case to proceed but dismissed negligence claims against 3M and Wolverine that were related to personal injury, writing in agreement with the companies that adequate evidence of injury due to PFAS exposure had not been demonstrated and “heightened risk” of developing a severe illness caused by PFAS pollution is “not a cognizable injury under Michigan law.”

In a statement, Wolverine said it and 3M “are pleased to have settled this lawsuit, and believe this settlement represents another important step towards resolving this matter and doing the right thing for our community.”

3M directed inquiries to an online statement in which it stated the company “remains committed to working collaboratively with communities and sharing our scientific knowledge on PFAS to achieve our common goals.”

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

“This was very actively litigated for a long time,” she said. The case involved “a lot of motion practice, a lot of experts on both sides. It’s a very complex case.”

Settlement negotiations were “very prolonged,” she said.

If approved by Judge Jarbou, the settlement would wrap up most lawsuits filed against Wolverine over PFAS contamination in Kent County.

In late April, roughly 275 individual lawsuits 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 attorneys would not comment on the settlements, which are subject to non-disclosure clauses. Payouts and are other settlement details in those cases are not known.

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

to a federal securities filing in April, 3M and Wolverine were able to achieve dismissal of two of five individual “bellwether” Varnum cases selected for trial in 2021 and according to the others for an “immaterial amount” last October.

Wolverine remains in litigation with several insurers and owners of the Boulder Creek Golf Club in Belmont, which sued the company in 2018 alleging it hid the risk of PFAS when Wolverine used the property, then an aggregate mine named Northeast Gravel, as a waste dump in the 1970s.

According to a May filing in Wolverine’s federal insurance case, the company spent more than $105 million to date defending itself in the Varnum cases, the class action, the Boulder Creek case and a case brought by the state of Michigan that resulted in a $69.5 million settlement. That money has helped fund the ongoing Plainfield municipal water main extensions. 3M put $55 million toward 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 recorded $2.4 billion in revenue last year.

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

On the cleanup side, Wolverine is preparing to build a cap atop the waste buried at its former dump. The company has yet to begin treating PFAS-contaminated groundwater at its former tannery property along the Rogue River in Rockford.

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

That evaluation turned up previously undiscovered PFAS contamination this year at Wolverine’s old shoe sole manufacturing plant near the White Pine Trail in Rockford.

Related stories:

EPA to list PFAS chemicals as hazardous

Years after flags, PFAS found at Wolverine plant

Wolverine PFAS sites eyed for Superfund list

300 more homes connected to Plainfield water

Rogue River becomes focus of Wolverine cleanup

Cancer claims attorney who fought PFAS pollution

Wolverine ‘phyto’ dump cleanup plan gets thumbs down

HBO’s John Oliver highlights Michigan PFAS victims

3M, Wolverine settles PFAS lawsuit with Michigan family

Timeline: The Wolverine, 3M PFAS disaster

Michigan PFAS activist says blood testing saved her life

Cancer, ailments plague Wolverine dump neighbors

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