How Hush Puppies Shoes Sparked A Water Crisis

Doesn't it sound idyllic? Like who wouldn't want to live here? Except for theenvironmental contamination thing.

Aside from that, it's beautiful.

This house is technicallya hazardous waste site.

Wolverine Worldwide, the company that makesHush Puppies shoes, says it legally disposed of tannery waste inthe area from 1958 to 1970.

That waste turned out toleach toxic chemicals into the groundwater for years.

Now, the familiesof 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 thatbig thing, and you saw I got a delivery.

So now I've got tocarry those all into the house.

So this property is worth zero.

About 15 minutes from Sandy's house isthe site of the old Wolverine tannery in downtown Rockford.

We were thinking then maybewe don't even need lawyers.

Wolverine's a good company town and maybethey'll work with us on this.

And we truly thought gosh, ifwe could get free shoes.

Who doesn't want that every year? That was about a 30second discussion of free shoes.

And then we went, yeah.

We probably need a lawyer.

For years, the Rogue River haschurned 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 intakewas right down there.

This group of Rockford residents worked foryears to blow the whistle on contamination left behind fromWolverine's old tannery.

I have so many situations whereI knew I was being watched.

They had their eye on me.

But bottom line, I thinkthey were really afraid.

I think they were really afraidthe truth would come out.

And I believe some of them probably knew.

Along the way, there have beenpolice reports, lawsuits, town halls, blood tests and a lot of water samples.

But before all that was a companytown and waterproof Hush Puppies shoes.

Today, Wolverine Worldwide is a $2.

4 billion global corporation spanning roughly200 countries and territories.

It's home to brands like Chaco, Sperry, Merrell, Keds and of course, Hush Puppies.

Go back to 1903, Wolverine was afamily business making just 300 pairs of shoes a day out ofa factory in Rockford, Michigan.

The founders built a tannery tosupply the factory with tough, durable horsehide.

50 years later, theHush Puppies brand was born.

And Hush Puppies weren'tjust any old shoes.

They were waterproof thanks to aspecial coating made with 3M Scotchgard.

That Scotchgard coating used a chemicalcompound that was relatively new at the time called PFAS.

Short for per-or polyfluoroalkyl substances.

The compound was invented by scientists inthe late 30s, early 40s, and it turned out to be really good atputting out fires, resisting oil and in the case of HushPuppies, repelling water.

Today, scientists know that PFAS don'tbreak down in the environment, they accumulate in our bodies and havebeen 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 assuredcustomers its Scotchgard was safe.

By the 1960s, Wolverine was thebiggest employer in Rockford and Hush Puppies were becoming a global hit.

Everyone from Nick Cageto Keith Richards, Dr.

Evil and Mini Me, The Beatles, even Princess Diana were sporting the shoes.

By 1963, one in ten Americans hada pair of Hush Puppies, and in 1965, the shoemaker went public onthe New York Stock Exchange, changing its name to Wolverine Worldwide.

Then business really startedto take off.

By 1989, its internationalwholesale sales surpassed U.

S.

sales, and in the 90s it beganbuying up shoe brands like Merrell and Harley-Davidson.

In 2005, sales topped $1billion for the first time, and in 2009, the old tannery inRockford was scheduled for demolition.

Wolverine was a hugepiece of Rockford.

You know the Wolverine Y, theysponsored 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 tannerysite in downtown Rockford.

For years, it's leached high levelsof the likely carcinogen into the Rogue, leading to fish advisoriesand contaminated river foam.

Let's start here with A.

J.

, Lynn and Rick.

A big reason the town knows aboutPFAS 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 demolitionback in 2009, she got worried about the potential contamination just acouple blocks from her house.

So she started poking around.

The more she asked, the more she learned.

One of the people who helpedher identify potential contamination spots was Harvey White, aretired Wolverine tannery worker.

Lynn hired A.

J.

to help strategize.

He has experience on the other sideof the issue, working for companies that need to complywith environmental regulation.

I felt that there was a groupof citizens that were really being marginalized actively.

And that kind of gotme a little upset.

As a citizen, even though I devotedhundreds of hours to educating myself, to talking to people, to takingcomplex information and trying to understand it and then simplify it, still, she's just a citizen, you know.

Lynn tried to raise her concerns withstate and local officials, but for the most part, shewasn't taken seriously.

So she petitioned the federal EPA tolook into the Wolverine demolition site In a company town like this, I was villainized.

You just don't speakagainst a company.

And I felt like I worethe Scarlet A for activism.

I was treated quite badly by many, you know, just the whole network.

The current city manager of Rockfordsaid while he can't control what happened in the past, the city ofRockford is actively engaged with the entities involved to address communityconcerns 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 witha big container of papers and things like that.

I sat down with them and lookedat everything and I decided, yes.

So there was clearly enough evidencefor me to get involved.

Lynn, A.

J.

and Rick spent years conductingresearch, interviews and urging officials to test the soil and water.

Those tests eventually revealed contaminationfrom a slew of toxic chemicals.

The mantra we would hear again andagain is there's no known contamination.

And again, if one is notlooking and hasn't sampled the site, it's easy to say thatthere is no known contamination.

Wolverine said it adamantly disagrees withthe criticism that it took too long to respond to concerns aboutthe contamination and that it's been proactive in ensuring all affected residentshave access to safe drinking water.

When Wolverine finally came outwith maps of the contamination in 2018, they almost exactly lined up withthe map Lynn drew years ago.

She was right.

I was unprepared to see how muchactual exposure when they did the blood testing.

There was an adult that hashigher levels than the 3M workers just from drinking thewater around the tannery.

I moved here with myhusband in I think 1992.

We wanted a place thatwas private with no neighbors.

That was our goal.

We didn't care how manybathrooms, how many bedrooms.

We just wanted no neighbors.

And as you hear, we got a lotof birds for neighbors anddeer and rabbit and raccoon.

But that's it.

This is Joel.

And then this is my nephews, Eric andEthan, and that's my brother in law, Art This is up and ClingmansDome in Tennessee, North Carolina.

If you've ever been there, the spiralstaircase when you get up there.

Joel got some marbles and decided he wasgoing to hike to the top of Clingmans Dome and then roll themarble all the way down.

All of a sudden everybody at ClingmansDome that day is like standing back, cheering for the marble toget 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 wonderof, did that contribute to this? And what's this going to do for me? Because I have exceptionally high ratesin my blood as well.

But you're here alonehaving to manage that.

And so there's a lot of times thatyou sit here by yourself and feel scared and feel angry and feel frustrated.

So that light will get brighter.

It's just one of thoseit takes a while.

That's, this right here, is thewhole home filter system, affectionately known as Megatron.

It's got four, carbon, granular activatedcarbon filters that the water goes through, I guess.

I don't quite understand allthe mechanics of it.

I'm kind of Forest Gump-ing my way throughthis whole thing, I want to be honest about that.

I was sitting here watching the news onenight and and there was a story about Senator Peters was doing ahearing on PFAS contamination in Washington and it wasopen to the public.

And I remember literallysaying 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 andin November and did a field hearing that I got to speak at.

And I just went backto Washington in May.

And then we're going toBoston next week to speak.

Yeah, I don't know what I'm doing Don't be that impressed by it This tiny dot righthere, that's Rockford.

Those more than 700 otherdots represent contaminated public water systems, military bases, airports andindustrial plants all across the country.

Here in Boston, peoplefrom 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 agarden gnome standing here.

My name is David Bond, I teach at Bennington College.

I'm an accidental researcher, I didnot set out to study this.

My name is Brenda Hampton, I'm the administrator ofconcerned citizens from Lawrence County, Alabama.

Our county consists of like 33, 049 residents, it is down from34, 339 residents due to the contamination of our drinking water.

The biggest speaker of the daywas someone named Rob Bilott.

He's a bit of a legendin the world of PFAS.

Rob was one of the first lawyers toreally take a big PFAS manufacturer to court and win.

In 2001, he led aclass action suit against DuPont.

But he wasn't seeking payouts.

Rather, he wanted the manufacturers topay for more research on PFAS.

In 2017, Dupont and Chemourssettled multi district litigation involving more than 3, 500 PFAS lawsuits for$670 million and denied any wrongdoing.

In Washington, PFAS has made its wayinto at least 20 bills this session.

We in the federal government havestood by as industrial manufacturers polluted our households, our drinkingwater and our food supply.

The EPA said it's working on makinga regulatory determination on two types of PFAS by the end of 2019.

As it stands now, there's nofederally enforceable drinking water standard when it comes to PFAS.

If it's not a food ormedicine, there's very little government regulation.

The government leaves it to manufacturersand we need to change that paradigm, I think, and really think about, you know, what are the health implications of a particular chemical orset of chemicals before those are released to the public.

On a smaller scale, Wolverine isfacing hundreds of lawsuits from residents, including Sandy.

It's big.

I mean, in the case of Rockford.

This is one of the largestsites anywhere in the country.

We're talking about waste that wasdisposed of many decades ago.

And yet it is still found inthe groundwater at concentrations that are among the highest anywherein the world.

Oh, I think there's plentyof blame to go around.

I think we can spreadthat quite eagerly.

I know I'm not to blame.

I know my neighbors aren't to blame.

I know their childrenaren't to blame.

But we seem to be theones bearing the brunt of it.

We represent a family whose well failedjust from being old and out of date So that that's normal.

That happens.

But of course, what normally happens is andyou get a well permit and you put a new well in andyou're you're back in business.

But the state will notissue a new well permit.

And so now they haveno normal source water.

They don't have a well.

They don't have a municipal hookup.

So they now have to rely onwater being trucked in to their house.

All we can do is bringthe 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 Icould do to make it go better or faster, but I can't getthem a new well.

Wolverine won't buy their houseand help them move.

So they're, they can't afford to moveon 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 isexpected to be heard in March 2020.

Wolverine says that many of theallegations against it are misleading and that they haven't slowed in theircommitment to helping the community.

As of March 2019, Wolverine has spentover $17 million on water quality remediation.

Wolverine is currently designingand engineering a water filtration system to stop two types ofPFAS from flowing from its former tannery site into the Rogue River.

Wolverine's agreement with the North KentSewer Authority was approved on August 1st, 2019.

And it's suing 3M for selling themthe compound in the first place.

Wolverine claims 3M knew about theenvironmental risks of PFAS and failed to warn its customers or acceptany responsibility for the impact of Scotchgard.

3M said it doesn't comment onongoing litigation, but that it acted reasonably and responsibly in connectionwith products containing PFAS and stands behind itsenvironmental stewardship record.

But there's many more PFAS-related casesplaying out in courtrooms across the country.

One of the biggest mistakes madeby regulators and responsible parties is to discount the community, and I thinkthere is an assumption that the community is ignorant.

They wouldn't understand the issues.

But in each of our communitiesare scientists, regulatory experts, doctors who are fully capable of grasping eventhe most subtle aspects of this.

And hopefully if anything comes out ofthis, it's going to be: don't discount the communities.

I think we became like thoselittle trick birthday candles that people think, oh, let's just blow itup and then it relights.

And then like, oh, my gosh, we gotta to do more.

And they go, pfft, and thenit relights bigger and brighter.

And they're like, and they blow evenharder and it gets brighter yet.

And it's like they don'tknow 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 doingit, they only make the candles grow brighter.

To me, that's an imageof what activism and being involved.