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West Michigan town hall meeting yields more questions than answers about contaminated water

Town hall panel meeting at Rockford High School
Bryce Huffman
Michigan Radio
Town hall panel meeting at Rockford High School

Uncertainty lingers in West Michigan following an informational town hall meeting about contaminated well water.

State and county health official know the toxic chemicals discovered in Belmont and Plainfield Township are often used in leather goods.

What isn’t yet known is how long testing the water will take and what health issues are associated with the contamination.

David O’Donnell is with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. He says his department is looking into how widespread the contamination is.

“Then we can take the next step, which is what do we do with this, how do we provide people a permanent safe source of drinking water?” O’Donnell said.

Wolverine Worldwide is a shoe company that is believed to be the cause of the chemical leak.

Wells on adjacent property are testing positive for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances called PFAS, (also called perfluorinated chemicals, or PFCs), which Wolverine used at its former tannery in Rockford to waterproof leather for shoe manufacturing.

The company says the exact source of the contamination is still unknown.

Christopher Hufnagel, Senior Vice President of Strategy at Wolverine Worldwide, says the company is being proactive about the water issue.

“We’re committed to making sure residents are confident about the quality of their drinking water,” Hufnagel said.

Hufnagel says the company has passed out bottled water and tap filters to residents in the area.

Some residents are concerned about health issues connected to the water contamination.

Christina Busch, Toxicologist with the Michigan Department of Health and Human services, warns that while the chemicals found are associated with some diseases, it is too early to say for certain that the water can make people sick right now. 

"We simply haven't got enough data from these samples to know if the water is causing any current of future health conditions. It could take years of testing to find these things out," Busch said. 

Garrett Tenhave-Chapman lives near where the toxic chemicals were discovered.

He says the county should be more transparent in its findings.

“They should have an easy to find website dedicated to finding out all the information about the levels of contaminants and who’s affected,” Tenhave-Chapman said.

Bryce Huffman was Michigan Radio’s West Michigan Reporter and host of Same Same Different. He is currently a reporter for Bridge Detroit.
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