12 acres of Wolverine tannery sludge buried under golf course
By the shed where golfers fill buckets of yellow balls is a small stone marker partially overgrown by grass, which instructs anyone digging in the area to contact the property owner first and see a Kent County deed restriction file.
The marker says nothing about the 12 acres of Wolverine World Wide tannery waste buried four feet under range sand and topsoil.
That waste was no secret to state and county health officials in the 1970s, when the Michigan Department of Natural Resources clamped down on hazardous waste dumping at the former Northeast Gravel pit. The site was redeveloped in the late 1990s into the Boulder Creek golf course and adjoining apartments, homes and condos.
But that was decades ago and golf course neighbors say they didn't know until recently they were living near a toxic waste dump.
They are worried about their water wells, which they'd like tested for the same toxic chemicals leaching through the groundwater elsewhere in Plainfield Township. Not far away, another old Wolverine tannery sludge dump on House Street NE has created a plume of hazardous chemicals discovered at extremely high levels in Belmont wells this summer.
Those chemicals, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances called PFAS, (also called perfluorinated chemicals, or PFCs), are linked to cancer, thyroid problems and other illnesses. They were in Scotchgard, which Wolverine used in the shoe-making process.
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is still investigating how far the Belmont PFAS plume goes amid an expanding investigation into old Wolverine dump sites that's prompted the Kent County Health Department to launch a cancer study.
The list keeps growing, but some worry that a site where Wolverine dumped tannery sludge for years is being lost in the shuffle.
"I'm reading all of the articles in the news and not hearing anything about testing around the Boulder Creek Golf Course," said Deb Brase, who bought her home on the 5200 block of Chauncey Drive NE about 12 years ago. "I believe that we're within a range of proximity to that site that we definitely deserve to have our wells tested."
Brase and neighbors on Chauncey Drive NE near the intersection with Cannonsburg Road on the border of Cannon and Plainfield townships aren't the only residents near the course on well water. Just east of the golf course is an 89-acre, 55-and-older mobile home community called Leisure Village, which also sources its water from five wells.
The tannery waste is a quarter mile from the nearest village lots.
Leisure Village is owned by Sun Communities, a publicly-traded real estate investment trust. The company says it hired civil engineering firm Fleis & VandenBrink to test the water system for 36 different chemicals, including the 23 PFAS compounds DEQ has Wolverine testing for in Belmont. The sampling was scheduled to take place by Oct. 20.
Water testing was discussed with residents on Oct. 6. Residents of the park say they have not been supplied bottled water or filters.
"We took the initiative to have our wells tested as a precautionary measure as we became aware of the situation," said Jerry Jewell, Sun Communities vice president.
Jewell said the mobile home park has not received any contact from either Wolverine, the DEQ or the Kent County Health Department.
Wolverine is not doing any well testing around the golf course, and is waiting on direction from the DEQ on where to expand testing, according to Amanda Passage at Lambert Edwards & Associates, a public relations firm which handles external communications for the shoe company.
DEQ managers say they aren't worried about Leisure Village or the homes along Chauncey Drive because modeling in a 1995 engineering report concluded groundwater flows south to the Grand River and does not veer southeast toward those private wells.
Nonetheless, DEQ says it will test the Grace Community Church well southeast of the golf course even though that 1995 report concluded it was probably safe -- indicating those 22-year-old conclusions aren't being taken as absolute. Three more private wells on the south side of Cannonsburg Road and two irrigation wells that are part of new home construction at Boulder Creek are also being tested.
Plainfield Township municipal mains serve homes at the golf course, but do not extend east past the end of Boulder View Drive NE.
David O'Donnell, West Michigan field operations manager for the DEQ remediation division, said that he's 100 percent certain Leisure Village and Chauncey Drive wells are safe and expressed annoyance at the possibility "this publicity" on the tannery waste might cause the DEQ to "have to sample a few wells over there."
O'Donnell said it was a matter of "trying to save the taxpayer dollars" as to why DEQ wouldn't automatically test those wells to be certain they are safe.
"Groundwater flow direction is due south," he said. "Were pretty darn sure."
Despite DEQ assurances, independent scientists are concerned.
"Those wells should be checked," said Richard Rediske, an environmental chemist at Grand Valley State University's Annis Water Resources Institute who helped alert DEQ last year that Wolverine used Scotchgard and waste sites might be a problem.
"Any house on the periphery of the golf course should be checked."
Water contamination crisis expanding in West Michigan
According to court documents from past litigation involving the landfill, Wolverine dumped tannery waste at Northeast Gravel for nearly a decade. The company made daily trips to the site between 1970 and 1979, when the DNR stepped in and halted the dumping over contamination problems.
The Northeast Gravel landfill was the second large dumping ground for Wolverine's tannery waste after the company stopped taking sludge to House Street, according to state documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
While in operation, the landfill area accepted primarily general refuse, tannery waste, electroplating waste from the former Keeler Brass company and some detergent waste from Amway Corp., according to state records. The waste was dumped into unlined pits.
The Rusche family opened Northeast Gravel as a landfill and mining operation in the 1960s and sold the business decades later to a partnership that included Andrew Dykema, a West Michigan developer and excavator who owns Grand Rapids Gravel Co.
Dykema redeveloped Northeast Gravel into the Boulder Creek golf course and housing development the 1990s. He later sued Wolverine to recover the cost of covering the waste with a sand cap as required by the state during redevelopment. The two parties settled.
In a 2002 deposition on file at the Kent County Circuit Court, Dykema said covering the tannery waste with sand and topsoil was a difficult task because bulldozers would sink into the sloppy gunk.
"You can take a backhoe and dig down four feet and get right into the slurry," he said, adding later that there were still "spongy areas on the ground where the slurry has percolated near the surface."
It's not clear whether additional site work has since been conducted around the tannery waste area, which is immediately east of the clubhouse and north of an oblong pond. Multiple messages left with Dykema by MLive/The Grand Rapids Press were not returned.
The Environmental Protection Agency considered adding Northeast Gravel to its Superfund list after the DNR nominated the property in 1984, but the landfill remained under state oversight despite scoring high enough on the EPA's risk evaluation to warrant federal site status, according to a 1985 wire story in the Grand Rapids Press.
The primary tannery contaminant of concern at the time was trivalent chromium, which Wolverine used large quantities of in Rockford to chemically alter leather hides into material that wouldn't decompose. According to a 1991 DNR letter to then-Wolverine CEO Tom Gleason, a 1986 investigation by DNR and EPA found chromium, chloromethane and 1,1-Dichloroethane in groundwater at Northeast Gravel. The 1995 report also lists arsenic and lead as tannery waste contaminants.
Wolverine started using PFAS in 1958, but the compounds didn't generate EPA scrutiny until the late 1990s. Scotchgard was reformulated in the early 2000s after the EPA determined the key chemical ingredient, perfluoroctanesulfonic acid, or PFOS, was toxic to humans, bio-accumulates in wildlife and persists in the environment.
PFOS and a sister compound, PFOA, were found at unsafe levels in Plainfield Township's municipal water supply in 2013. The township's original well field is immediately south of the golf course, across the river at Versluis Park.
The township shut down those wells in 2015, although Plainfield's finished water supply still tested for traces of PFAS around the 3 to 6 parts-per-trillion range this spring. The EPA health advisory level for PFOS and PFOA is 70-ppt, although some states have lower limits and Harvard University research pegs 1-ppt as the proper safety level.
A different team at DEQ, the Superfund section, plans to drill monitoring wells on the north side of the river to determine whether waste from under the golf course is polluting the township wells, which extended deeper than the bottom of the Grand River bed.
The DEQ has about $135,000 to conduct that work, said DEQ project manager Judith Alfano. Investigators hope to tease out whether the Versluis wellfield is being polluted by PFAS from Northeast Gravel, the State Disposal Landfill to the south along the East Beltline, or both. Both were known places where Wolverine dumped tannery sludge.
It is also possible the plating waste could be contributing to PFAS in the township wells, said Alfano. An exact plan and work schedule is still being developed.
While the plating waste area was eventually covered by a clay cap, the 1995 engineering report stated that buried chromium had a lower potential for leaching into the groundwater, so the state only required a sand cap over the tannery sludge.
In contrast to chromium, PFAS compounds are highly soluble in water. Their persistence and mobility underground can cause large plumes.
Rod Mosier, a retired DNR site enforcement supervisor who worked on the Northeast Gravel case in the late 1970s and early 80s, said it doesn't take expert credentials to know that a sand cap over toxic waste is likely to exacerbate groundwater contamination.
State records show Mosier argued for a clay cap decades ago.
"If you have an impermeable seal like clay, that will help prevent rainwater from getting into the waste and creating seepage," he told MLive. "Sand is certainly not going to do the job, no matter how much you put on there. That's just logic."