“RAND RAPIDS, MI — Minnesota manufacturing giant 3M tested water samples and sent specialists to analyze fluorochemical exposure at the former Wolverine World Wide tannery in Rockford, according to new filings by Michigan residents suing over drinking water polluted by chemical dumping in Kent County.
In August 1999, an ‘industrial hygienist’ visited the former leather tannery amid growing concerns related to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, in 3M Scotchgard that Wolverine workers used in mass quantity at the shoe leather complex.
The visit — part of substantial PFAS-related discussion between 3M and Wolverine — is outlined in amended lawsuits filed Monday, Aug. 13, in Kent County 17th Circuit Court by attorneys for Varnum Law, which represent more than 400 people suing Wolverine over contamination caused by tannery waste dumping.
The filings formally name 3M as a defendant after Judge George J. Quist ruled that Wolverine could drag its former chemical supplier into the case as a liable party.
The cases before Quist are not class-action, although Wolverine and 3M are co-defendants in a separate but similar PFAS class-action case in federal court. Wolverine is also facing two other PFAS class-action cases filed by local residents in state court.
Varnum’s cases have advanced the farthest to date. The firm expects to file about 150 amended complaints by the end of August. The lawsuits cover a range of allegations, from wrongful death and health claims to property value loss and statutory violations.
The new filings illuminate the relationship between Wolverine and 3M while expanding on the manufacturer’s role in concealing alleged harm its lucrative chemical production was causing to people and the environment. It paints a picture of two companies bonded by lucrative but toxic chemistry that neither wanted to jettison…
‘It’s bizarre how much communication there was,’ said Varnum attorney Paul Albarran. ‘I’m sure there’s more we haven’t seen yet.’
Scotchgard was one of multiple PFAS products made by 3M, which the filing notes was taking in $1 billion in revenue every 2-3 years from sale of such fluorochemicals in the United States…
Starting in 1958, Wolverine bought ‘more than half the Scotchgard 3M sold to tanneries around the world,’ the filings claim. In 1990, the company bought more than 94,500 pounds of it. The pure Scotchgard was dark green and it stained tannery waste that color.
Wolverine’s status as a dominant Scotchgard buyer afforded it ‘unprecedented’ access to internal knowledge about health and environmental problems 3M had been accruing but concealing from the public for decades, the filings say.
In Miami, Fla., on Jan. 10, 1999, Wolverine and 3M executives met at the Pan American Leather trade show to talk about environmental concerns with PFOS, the key ingredient in Scotchgard. Wolverine was allegedly concerned about ‘fluorine levels in tannery workers” and the “potential business impact of publicity,’ according to the filings.
A week later, 3M sent Wolverine a letter summarizing the meeting in which 3M wrote that chemical exposures could occur from Scotchgard use and disposal, that PFOS accumulated in the body and did not breakdown in the environment, and that it was being found in the blood serum of people who were not chemical factory workers.
On Nov. 3, 2017, 3M attorneys made that letter public in an apparent bid to deflect blame for contamination from Wolverine’s dumping…
On June 24, 1999, 3M met with a group of Wolverine executives that included now-CEO Blake Krueger to address concerns that tannery workers might have high exposure levels because they’ve ‘been using the product as long as 3M’s and probably take fewer precautions.’
The next day, Wolverine sent 3M water samples for testing.
Less than a month later, on July 16, handwritten 3M notes from a call with Wolverine indicate Scotchgard ‘got into drinking water’ at the tannery during product spraying. In August, a 3M specialist visited the tannery to take PFAS air samples, also noting ‘multiple observations of workers not wearing gloves when handling the chemical.’
Scotchgard often spilled into the tannery floor, the filings note.
‘Wolverine needs to consider necessary engineering controls in that drying process to prevent volatile material from escaping into the work area,’ the filings quote.
Wolverine was ‘interested in pursuing blood testing within their employees’ and worried about residual exposure from people wearing its shoes, the filings claim. The company kept in touch with 3M after the site visit by requesting internal 3M communications, assurances about product safety and insurance policy coverage.
3M continued to sell Wolverine the old Scotchgard formulation after the product phaseout announcement in 2000, the filings allege, citing internal emails.”
Read the full article by Garret Ellison