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Judge gives final approval to $54 million settlement over PFAS in Kent County

A map shows the area in northern Kent County where PFAS contamination has been found.
Court filing for U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan
A map showing areas where property owners may be eligible for settlement funds from the PFAS lawsuit, as seen in the proposed settlement filed in federal court.

A federal judge gave final approval Wednesday for a $54 million class-action settlement over PFAS contamination in northern Kent County.

Wolverine Worldwide, a West Michigan shoe company, agreed to the settlement, along with 3M, the company that manufactured the toxic chemicals.

“It is significant compensation for those people who had elevated PFAS level in their water,” said Esther Berezofsky, an attorney with Motley Rice who represented property owners in the lawsuit.

PFAS is a class of chemicals with a variety of industrial uses, including waterproofing, but they've been linked to an array of health problems, including cancer and developmental delays.

Berezofsky said close to 1,000 property owners filed claims to be part of the class that will receive compensation in the settlement. Some of those claims are still being validated.

But the approval of the final settlement agreement on Wednesday by federal judge Hala Jarbou represents a big step toward helping homeowners who lost property value after PFAS was discovered in wells throughout the area, said Berezofsky.

Wolverine Worldwide and 3M have faced several lawsuits over the contamination. Wolverine operated shoe manufacturing sites in the area, and used chemicals made by 3M which are suspected of causing the contamination.

Previously, 3M agreed to pay $55 million to Wolverine to settle the legal battles over the contamination, and Wolverine reached an agreement with the state of Michigan to spend $69 million to extend municipal water systems to homes in the area that had well water contaminated with PFAS.

Wolverine Worldwide has been updating the progress on that plan on a blog: wearewolverine.com.

Earlier this month, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy pushed back on one aspect of the company’s remediation plan, which involves a former tannery site along the Rogue River in Rockford. The company had proposed digging trenches near the river, to try to prevent chemicals from seeping into the river through the groundwater. EGLE rejected that plan, and said Wolverine would have to submit a new one by May 9.

And Berezofsky said there is still the possibility of more litigation, because the settlement with property owners only covers damage related to the property itself.

“It is limited to property damages, which include loss of use and convenience, diminution of property value,” she said, “and does not include — should God forbid — people sustain any personal injuries in the future.”

That means residents who may have suffered health consequences from PFAS exposure could still pursue compensation for that in future lawsuits.

When the settlement agreement for property owners was first announced last year, Wolverine Worldwide issued a statement saying it would continue to work on monitoring for PFAS contamination and remediation in the area.

“We are pleased to have settled this lawsuit,” the statement from a company spokesperson said last September, “and believe this settlement represents another important step towards resolving this matter and doing the right thing for our community.”

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Radio’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Radio since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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