Wolverine Worldwide used to be at the heart of the economy in Rockford, Michigan.
Now, it’s a $2.4 billion global corporation and home to brands like Chaco, Sperry, Merrell and Hush Puppies — and a point of contention in its hometown.
The problem stems from an old tannery and waterproof Hush Puppies shoes. In the 1950s, Wolverine Worldwide bought a special 3M Scotchgard coating to waterproof its iconic casual shoe line that contained a chemical compound called PFAS, short for per- or polyfluoralkyl substances.
Today, scientists know PFAS don’t break down in the environment, accumulate in our bodies and have been linked to some pretty serious health effects. But in the 1950s and ’60s, PFAS were a manufacturer’s dream come true because of a range of benefits from fire resistance to waterproofing.
Wolverine Worldwide’s tannery in Rockford was scheduled for demolition in 2009, which caused some residents to worry about chemicals that might be released when the decades-old building was torn down. Ultimately, a group of Rockford residents worked nearly a decade to blow the whistle on contamination left behind from the former tannery.
The fallout has chipped away at the company’s reputation in a community that’s been its home for nearly 140 years.
Some residents have been told not to drink their tap water because it’s contaminated with PFAS. Along the Rogue River are signs warning families the frothy foam in the water is toxic. Wolverine Worldwide is facing hundreds of lawsuits from Northern Kent County residents. And the shoemaker itself is suing 3M for selling it the reportedly dangerous Scotchgard coating in the first place.
A 3M spokesperson said while the company doesn’t comment on ongoing litigation, “3M acted reasonably and responsibly in connection with products containing PFAS and stands behind its environmental stewardship record.”
Wolverine said its “commitment to helping our friends, family, and neighbors address water quality issues in the area has never wavered.”
“From the start, we’ve taken proactive actions to ensure all affected residents have access to safe drinking water,” a Wolverine spokesperson said.
As of March, Wolverine Worldwide had set aside more than $35 million to address environmental remediation in Michigan. So far, it has spent $17.1 million on investigations, providing water filters to affected residents and designing a filtration system to treat the water from its old tannery before it reaches the Rogue River.
The company says it’s also in talks with the EPA and various regulators about other remediation efforts, including additional soil and sediment testing, putting up more signs addressing contamination in public areas and installing fencing around a former disposal area.
CNBC went to Michigan to see how PFAS contamination is affecting the communities where the chemicals were used. Watch the video above to hear from the residents who cracked the case and a woman whose water was contaminated.