Livonia homeowners sue Ford over contamination

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News

Livonia — Homeowners here are suing Ford Motor Co. for groundwater contamination at the transmission plant they say has damaged their property values and their “ability to use and enjoy their homes.”

Bruce Tenniswood, right, and around 135 other residents in the Alden Village neighborhood of Livonia, Michigan say Ford Motor Co. has tainted groundwater that is seeping into their neighborhood, damaging property values and causing health risk. He photographed here outside his home Aug. 9, 2017, with a team of lawyers representing homeowners in the neighborhood.

The suit comes after a recent settlement between Ford and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, in which Ford agreed to pay $45,000 to the agency, and to clean up any pollution caused by potentially cancer-causing chemicals sitting in the groundwater beneath the Livonia Transmission Plant.

Ford said tests showed those chemicals pose no health risk for residents, and drinking water is not at risk.

The contamination came from trichloroethylene, a solvent used at the plant as a parts degreaser until the 1980s. That chemical broke down into the hazardous vinyl chloride, which Ford found in groundwater at the plant while doing upgrades. Vinyl chloride exposure is associated with an increased risk of a rare form of liver cancer, as well as brain and lung cancers, lymphoma and leukemia, according to the National Cancer Institute.

But that tainted groundwater is flowing beneath the Alden Village neighborhood immediately east of the plant, lawyers representing the homeowners allege.

Those homeowners had intended to take Ford to federal court to make Ford clean up the contaminants, but the MDEQ beat them to it and settled. The legal team and around 100 homeowners gathered in the driveway of one of the homesteads covered in the suit Wednesday said that because it is now the MDEQ’s job to force Ford to clean up the contamination, they took secondary action in local court.

The neighbors are suing Ford for a count each of negligence, private nuisance and public nuisance, and seeking damages in excess of $25,000 for each charge, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday in Wayne County Circuit Court.

“It’s not just a little thing,” said Bruce Tenniswood, a homeowner represented in the case. “It’s turned into a very large event.”

Tenniswood said outside of suing for damages, he and others are relying on the government to make Ford abate the chemicals.

“All we can do is sit back and trust an agency that’s done nothing,” he said.

Ford issued a statement Wednesday: “We remain fully committed to protecting the environment. All community samples collected to date show no health risk to residents or drinking water.

“When we discovered the issue, we promptly alerted the MDEQ and the plant’s neighbors,” Ford spokesman John Cangany said in that statement. “Since then, we have actively worked with the MDEQ and investigated the potential for groundwater contamination, culminating in our settlement with the State of Michigan in July that includes plans for addressing the neighborhood and continued public outreach.”

Per the settlement with the MDEQ, Ford also said it will take steps to abate as necessary any pollution caused by trichloroethylene and vinyl chloride that seeped into the groundwater near the plant; the company will also submit a series of plans to the state outlining future preventative measures.

The state sued in part to ensure Ford modified its handling of solid and hazardous waste. As part of the settlement, the state will not sue or take any further action against Ford related to the groundwater and soil contamination.

Homeowners gather for a press conference Aug. 9, 2017, where attorneys discussed a lawsuit against Ford Motor Co.

When the MDEQ sued Ford in July, it said hazardous waste had “migrated” to properties in areas bounded to the east by Stark Road and Boston Post Street, to the south by Plymouth Road, to the west by Farmington Road, and to the north by the railroad.

Last year, Ford drilled in that area to identify the location of the vinyl chloride and see if it had migrated off-site. In addition to underground water testing, Ford conducted below-ground soil air sampling to assess outdoor and indoor air impacts, but those tests found no impact to the air quality.

But Shawn Collins and Norman Berger, two Illinois lawyers representing the neighbors, said those chemicals have a tendency to turn into a gas, which travels upward from the groundwater.

“Problems like this can endure for decades if the people who can do something about it don’t do something about it,” attorney Shawn Collins said.

Said Berger: “No permanent remedy has been implemented. ... They can’t sell these homes.”

Multiple homeowners said they want Ford to clean up the chemicals, and will be watching to make sure the MDEQ enforces the terms of the settlement.

Theresa Gentner, 58, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1990, said she fears for the safety of her grandchildren, who often play in the backyard. She was diagnosed with scleroderma, an autoimmune rheumatic disease that some research has linked to vinyl chloride, in 2000.

“If we had a choice, I’d like them to clean it up, because then we can stop worrying,” she said.

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau