EPA mobile lab in Flat Rock to test buildings, sewer affected by gasoline leak

Charles E. Ramirez
The Detroit News

Flat Rock — The Environmental Protection Agency has sent high-tech equipment to Flat Rock to test benzene levels in homes, buildings and sanitary sewers following last week's gasoline spill, officials said Wednesday.

The federal agency dispatched a Trace Atmospheric Gas Analyzer, or TAGA, mobile laboratory to the city. EPA officials said the agency has two such mobile labs and they have been deployed to disaster sites across the country, including in the aftermaths of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 and in New York after Sept. 11, 2001.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, and EPA chemist David Mickunas address the media Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, about TAGA, the EPA's Trace Atmospheric Gas Analyzer.  The TAGA instruments are mobile, and will be testing the air in Flat Rock after a gasoline leak.

The TAGA arrived in the area Tuesday night from Research Triangle, N.C., said Dave Mickunas, a chemist with the EPA who works in the mobile lab. He said he expected the lab to begin its operations Wednesday.

"We're going to be monitoring for benzene, toluene and xylene in the sewers and the buildings that are adjacent to the site as well as those that are around the site," he said. "The (EPA's regional office) recognized that this could help them here."

All three are components of gasoline. The concern, according to officials, is all three are poisonous and exposure to benzene fumes over a long period may cause serious health problems.

Mickunas made the remarks during a 9 a.m. news conference held outside Flat Rock City Hall. He was joined by U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn.

He explained the mobile lab tests air with a special hose that takes in samples. Mass spectrometers and other equipment analyze the samples in real time. The equipment is highly sensitive and can differentiate between trace amounts of benzene found in every day household products and those related to the spill, he said.

Testing will be conducted at each home and building individually, but it's still not clear how many places the lab will need to analyze, Mickunas said.

Dingell said officials from the federal, state and county levels are working to make sure Flat Rock's citizens are safe in the wake of the gas spill. She also said she has been in constant communication with the head of the EPA.

"We're going to make sure this is cleaned up and that nobody is in danger," she said. "(We're) not taking any chances with anybody. Even though it is inconvenient, (people's) health has to be the No. 1 factor."  

Benzene in Flat Rock's sewer system has decreased and been flushed out since the spill was first reported, the congresswoman said. She said experts have told her it has gone to a safe place, but did not know exactly where.

The smell from the spill was first noticed in the Hickory Ridge subdivision, south of Vreeland, east of Telegraph. Fumes coming from Flat Rock's sanitary sewer system last week prompted the state and Wayne County to both declare the problem an emergency. The city also evacuated a school and four homes.

On Friday, state environmental officials and Ford Motor Co. said the automaker's Flat Rock Assembly Plant was likely the source of the fumes. Ford said it discovered a large leak in a pipe that carries gasoline to the plant was likely the cause. The factory uses the gasoline to fuel the Ford Mustangs it builds.

State officials said an estimated 1,000 to 3,000 gallons of unleaded gasoline are estimated to have spilled into the sewer system.

This past weekend, the state urged more Flat Rock residents who live in several neighborhoods to evacuate their homes.

Ford said on Monday it was halting production at the Flat Rock plant at least through Friday due to the gasoline leak.

Dingell said Wednesday she's been speaking to Ford's senior management about the spill.

"Ford has serious corporate responsibilities and they are going to be held accountable," she said.  "(It) owes answers to everyone about how this happened, what's been done to fix it.

"The other thing they're doing is going to every facility in the world to look at it and make sure this can't happen at any other plant."


Twitter: @CharlesERamirez