CLAS Acts June 2018

Monthly newsletter of TT faculty of the college



Frederick J. Antczak


The beautiful spring came; and when Nature resumes her loveliness, the human soul is apt to revive also.

~Harriet Ann Jacobs

Something remarkable happened last month.  Not a single grade was late.  Poised to make frantic phone calls, Betty Schaner hardly knew what to do with her afternoon.  On behalf of all who work in this area and our students, I thank you.  

That was not the only wondrous thing that fell into place.  

Saxophone Professor Dan Graser is part of an ensemble that won one of music’s biggest awards-- the Gold Medal at the Fischoff Competition.

Two of our CLAS students were awarded Beckman Scholarships to work on antibiotic resistance with Sok Kean Khoo and Brad Wallar.

The team of archaeologists with whom Elizabeth Arnold (ANT) works discovered that bits were used for equines (a donkey in this case) 4,700 years ago.  Much earlier than was thought.


Erik Nordman's research about energy in Cape Verde has been turned into a teacher resource by National Geographic.

Thanks in part to Carl Ruetz at AWRI, the Artic grayling, not seen around here since the 1930s, may make a comeback in our waters.

Film student Charles Billingsley, who is the president of our Animator's Guild, just secured his dream internship as a Technical Director Intern at DreamWorks Animation! 

The Padnos Distinguished Artist-in-Residence Melanie Daniel continues to make a splash in the New York art scene (check it out), just as her predecessor Nayda Collazo Llorens has.  That means our students are getting the opportunity to work with artists who are making waves in the heart of the art scene, just as the endowed position was intended to do.

We just released the annual report (Service and Community Engagement in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences 2017-2018) singing your praises for all your great service work and then this sort of news about your scholarly and creative achievements started pouring in.

Even the Peregrine falcon chicks I mentioned last month are going strong.  

And in the midst of this, it stopped snowing―and my lawn already needs mowing.  

It has been observed that gratitude is a particularly fleeting emotion, but I have a heady supply of it now, partly because I know you will continue your wonderful ways.  

Wishing all of you a very happy spring and summer.


Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of man-made chemicals that includes PFOA, PFOS, GenX, and many other chemicals. PFAS have been manufactured and used in a variety of industries around the globe, including in the United States since the 1940's. PFOA and PFOS have been the most extensively produced and studied of these chemicals. Both chemicals are very persistent in the environment and in the human body – meaning they don’t break down and they can accumulate over time. There is evidence that exposure to PFAS can lead to adverse human health effects.

~Environmental Protection Agency website


Sometimes the service that a faculty member provides only appears obliquely in the news, but has profound implications. Such was the case this year when many media outlets reported that a “Grand Valley State University scientist” had worked with a Rockford citizens group to discover the toxic truth of contaminated sites that have affected drinking and recreational water resources in the Rockford area.

That scientist is Senior Program Manager and Professor Rick Rediske of the Robert B. Annis Water Resources Institute.

Rick explained, “I was asked by the Concerned Citizens for Responsible Redevelopment to review and comment on information concerning the cleanup of the Rockford Tannery in 2014. They were concerned that contamination was still present and I agreed to review available information. We tried working through MDEQ [Michigan Department of Environmental Quality] and Wolverine World Wide and did not get much interest on the need for more investigation and cleanup of the contamination for two years.“

And then the Rockford PFAS contamination became the subject of nightly news broadcasts and newspaper coverage.

As Ken Kolker, Target 8 investigator reported on September 27, 2017, “The Kent County Health Department is launching its most expansive cancer cluster study ever in response to contaminated groundwater next to a former Wolverine Worldwide dump site.”

Kolker described the citizen group, Concerned Citizens for Responsible Redevelopment, and Rick Rediske’s involvement in bringing the situation to light. “Earlier this year, a Rockford citizens group, working with a Grand Valley State University scientist, notified the state about the likelihood that the area was contaminated with PFOS, a chemical that had been used in Scotchgard, which Wolverine used for decades in the production of shoes. 3M stopped using the chemical in Scotchgard in 2002 and the EPA in 2005 called it a possible carcinogen.”

As the R.B. Annis Water Resources Institute's newsletter explained, “The EPA has established a Drinking Water Health Advisory of 70 parts per trillion for PFAS; however, many wells in one area of Plainfield Township were found to exceed this level. Over 600 home wells are being tested for PFAS and 35 potential waste disposal areas are being investigated. Dr. Rediske has provided numerous media interviews for local TV and newspapers concerning the environmental and health effects of these chemicals. He also sampled and helped identify tannery wastes in an area where corroded drums were found to have been discarded.”

Rick’s persistence was key. “I wrote a memo about my concerns related to PFOS in late 2016 and gave it to Wolverine and MDEQ. The memo raised the level of concern and more testing was done. We have 4 waste disposal sites identified where surrounding residents may have been drinking contaminated water for 20+ years so the epidemiological study by the Heath Department is an important next step.”

As Target 8 conveyed, “This summer, tests found high levels of PFOS in the well water of homes on House Street, including one that was 542 times the EPA advisory level. So far, tests have found PFOS in 233 of 662 homes in that area, including 30 with levels above the EPA limit.”

As of May 2018, the MDEQ indicated that over 1000 residential wells have been tested for PFAS in the Rockford/Plainfield area.

The GR Press said, “This fall, Wolverine also is testing the Rogue River and the demolished tannery site in downtown Rockford for PFAS compounds after a group of local citizens and a Grand Valley State University professor alerted the DEQ last year that the company made Hush Puppies with Scotchgard for decades in Rockford.”

Rick provided us with a peek behind the news.

“The Rogue River had high ammonia levels toxic to fish such as native brown trout. The tannery was decommissioned and torn down around 2011. The citizen group had done their homework—records, interviewing former employees on waste disposal practices—so they knew what could be there. I was able to articulate concerns about mercury in scientific terms. This area was not deemed a superfund site by the Department of Environmental Quality, so the MDEQ remained in the oversight role for the cleanup,” Rick noted.

Meanwhile Wolverine was doing some cleaning up of contaminants but not quickly and perhaps not in all the right places. In 2015, the state of Michigan found leather treatment chemicals (such as Scotchgard) in the fish from Rogue River near Rockford. The EPA testing found chromium, mercury, solvents related to leather cleaning, and high amounts of ammonia from the breakdown of hides and the tanning process.

Hush Puppies shoes were first waterproofed with Scotchgard in 1953 and continued to use the fluorochemical product until it was discontinued in 2002 due to environmental and human health concerns. When the citizens group talked to former employees in early 2016 about PFAS, they learned about the House Street site. They interviewed one of the individuals who drove the waste disposal truck and also residents with wells near the site and raised the concern about contaminated groundwater.

In August of 2016, Rick met with Wolverine’s attorneys and the West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC). The state did not want to talk to the citizen group, so WMEAC was designated as the communication interface with the state. Rick conveyed information that there was PFAS at the site and that it was causing fish contamination.

Rick remembered, “This raised the flag.”  There was denial that PFAS was used at the site. “No evidence,” they contended. But they had not sampled for it. When nothing happened after the meeting, WMEAC asked for a meeting with MDEQ.

In January 2017, Rick wrote a memo to John Pawloski of the MDEQ outlining what should be investigated. He gathered the evidence contradicting the claims by the Wolverine attorneys that there was no evidence of PFOS use at the Rockford Tannery site. He recalled the 2013 study on the Rockford Impoundment downstream from the tannery and the elevated levels of PFOS found in small mouth bass and white sucker—enough to result in the issuance of a fish consumption advisory for PFOS. He made the case for soil, groundwater and scrap leather deposit analysis.

The MDEQ responded that they would perform this testing in fall 2017. Meanwhile, a well permit request the spring of 2017 showed that there was PFOS in the groundwater near the House Street Disposal Site.

Wolverine started investigations to the northwest of the disposal site, but as Rick explains, the southeast was the direction the plume was tending. A test at the nearby National Guard base found PFAS and indicated that the southeast was the direction to look. The MDEQ directed Wolverine to focus in that area and the highest levels of PFOS in the state were discovered.

Through a search of additional records, more sites were found, including the Boulder Creek Golf Course and the State Disposal Superfund Site near the Plainfield Township well field. The area of groundwater contamination covers 20 square miles and includes the municipal supply wells for over 40,000 people.

As part of this process, Rick has given talks in schools and interviews with local media and even the New York Times.

“Now the plumes are being tracked,” Rick said with a degree of relief. “Plainfield Township is installing carbon filtration, Wolverine is providing whole house carbon filtration for individual properties with high levels in their water. Filtration is effective. It remains to be seen if the individual wells will stay on filtration or will be hooked up to public water. And there will be civil penalties, probably not criminal.”

Rick was sought out by the citizen group because he had done work back in 1995 on the White Lake tannery. Now as he is set to begin phased retirement, this seems like coming full circle. While he will no longer come to work every day, he is sure that his participation in water quality is not over.

“The MDEQ needs to involve the public more in the process, not exclude them. I’m advocating for a Public Advisory Council to provide monthly updates and to communicate public concerns and perspectives to the MDEQ. As it is, I get updates in the press,” Rick added with a wry smile.

He’s happy to see some GVSU alumni become part of the solution. A former master’s student is now a water quality specialist for the MDEQ and is working on a wastewater site where a plating company discharges PFAS. He contact Rick to say, “Dr. Rediske, didn’t you teach us about the chemical PFAS?”  Another student is doing some geographic information system (GIS) mapping of all the sites for the MDEQ as a contractor.

The story continues to unfold, but is already a lesson in how one person, supported by science and persistence, can make a significant difference and inspire another generation of scientists while he’s at it.

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