In November 2010, Lynn McGavin McIntosh ’80 was guiding a piano student through Bach’s Minuet in G when she heard a crash. “Kacie,” she said, “Minuet in G three more times, I’ll be right back.” She dashed out her back door, climbed a ladder onto a neighbor’s roof deck, and began snapping photos of large dust clouds billowing from a demolition site across the street.
“Sometimes you have to seize the moment and drop everything,” McIntosh told those gathered last September to award her The Petoskey Prize, presented annually by the Michigan Environmental Council to “a volunteer activist for outstanding grassroots environmental leadership.”
She sidesteps the label “activist.”
“For me, an activist is an artist on fire. Something’s very wrong, you see it with burning clarity, and you must sound a warning bell.”
McIntosh knew there was something wrong when Wolverine Worldwide, a footwear and apparel company headquartered in Rockford, Michigan, applied for a permit to demolish its century-old tannery, claiming, “There is no known contamination on the property.”
Former tannery workers told McIntosh otherwise. They described storage tanks for heavy metals that were never emptied; “the pit,” where toxic waste pooled and overflowed; and “tons of Scotchgard” used to waterproof shoes.
McIntosh and her husband formed Concerned Citizens for Responsible Remediation (CCRR), presenting evidence— including soil and water samples—to the city and the state’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and urging an environmental study of the site before allowing demolition.
But for nearly 140 years, Wolverine jobs and company-funded civic projects had helped the community of 6,000 thrive. Local newspapers reported that city leaders looked away from the evidence and lobbied the state to leave the matter in local hands. Rockford’s newspaper decried the McIntoshes and the CCRR for “harassment of our local business community.”
The city granted Wolverine a permit, and for the 12 months it took to raze the tannery, the CCRR could only watch—and document. McIntosh took thousands of photos. She followed trucks to unauthorized dump sites. She requested public records and made maps of pollution hot spots. In June 2011, the CCRR petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for an assessment of the property. The EPA declared the tannery warranted investigation as a federal Superfund site.
It seemed a victory for the citizen-led resistance. But city, state, and business leaders pushed back, and the EPA bowed, agreeing to a state-led, voluntary cleanup of the site.
“That’s when anybody would have given up,” McIntosh said. “But I knew too much. It was like I heard cries in a mine shaft.”
For five years she and the CCRR went underground. They learned that the tons of Scotchgard Wolverine used at the tannery contained PFAS, a family of chemicals that don’t break down in the environment and are linked to cancer, endocrine disorders, and a multitude of other illnesses. One former Wolverine driver showed McIntosh where he dumped a truckload of PFAS-laden sludge every day for a year, a site surrounded by homes with private wells.
McIntosh thought, What if I lived there? What if these were my children?
By early 2017, the CCRR had enough evidence to spark a DEQ investigation of at least one of Wolverine’s dump sites.
“Though they promised quick action, we heard nothing for eight months,” McIntosh said. “That’s when I said, ‘Enough! I’m calling The Grand Rapids Press.’”
The story broke, and the public shockwave that followed forced investigations. More than 1,500 homes in seven contamination zones were found to have PFAS in their drinking water. The highest concentrations are more than 10,000 times the amount considered safe by federal officials to consume over a lifetime. Wolverine has agreed to extend city water lines to many, but not all, affected homes. It could take generations to clean up sediments leaching toxins into groundwater and the Rogue River.
“This is the tip of the iceberg,” McIntosh said. Chief among her concerns is that “the EPA still has not declared PFAS—and many other seriously harmful chemicals—hazardous.”
“And yet,” she added, “in a story with a dark underbelly of greed and corruption, I saw that light shines in a multitude of ways. It pricks, provokes, reveals, softens, sharpens, and, in the case of CCRR, ricocheted among us, creating an energy that steeled us until help finally came.”