Community coalition calls for city to evacuate section of SW Detroit amid underground probe

Sarah Rahal Noelle Gray
The Detroit News

Detroit — A city councilwoman and community group in southwest Detroit are calling for an immediate evacuation of residents near the site of an underground event last week that caused the ground to shift, damaging buildings and buckling a roadway.

District 6 Councilwoman Raquel Castañeda-López and the Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition on Thursday called upon city officials and agencies to warn residents in the vicinity of the investigation underway at W. Fort and Dearborn streets.

“The site is unstable, the cause is not known, and the direction it is taking is

unpredictable, and all of this is occurring in an area where we understand there are high-pressure gas lines,” Kevin Casillas, a pastor with the coalition, said in a press release. 

“An abundance of caution must continue to be taken to protect people. If we can’t 

assure people of their safety, we must let them know and provide them safe options."

The group's call to evacuate hundreds of residents nearby comes after city officials said earlier Thursday that the unknown underground incident has continued to impact DTE Energy's natural gas infrastructure. 

Excavation was initiated Wednesday at the former site of Stash Detroit, a provisioning center at the corner of Dearborn and W. Fort streets, to help determine the composition and stability of the ground. The building was demolished Tuesday, days after the underground event left it severely damaged.

The incident unfolded within 30 minutes Saturday evening, resulting in gas and water lines underground being displaced. City officials said the situation has not changed since.

Detroit's Chief Operating Officer Hakim Berry told the Detroit City Council on Tuesday that there was "no imminent danger" and no reason to evacuate the 53 homes in the area. The air is being consistently monitored.

In response to the benefit coalition's letter, Berry told The Detroit News late Thursday that since the initial incident occurred "the area has been made safe" and "there is nothing from a health or safety standpoint at this time that would necessitate an evacuation."    

 “However, we continue to monitor the situation very closely," he said. 

Demolition of Stash Provisioning Center at Dearborn Street and Fort in southwest Detroit on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021.

As a cautionary measure, DTE on Wednesday shut down a 24-inch, high-pressure natural gas pipe along Dearborn Street to avert a potential public safety issue and to allow the investigation into the ground shift to proceed safely.

DTE is installing a temporary bypass that will restore natural gas service to the six industrial clients affected by the temporary safety disconnection, the city noted.

The bypass construction and restored service are expected to be completed within a week.

Meantime, Berry said workers continue to investigate the root cause of the ground upheaval, which continues to apply pressure to DTE’s utility equipment.

"We thank DTE for its detailed monitoring of the natural gas system, which alerted engineers to a potential issue," Berry said. "And for putting the safety of our community first by taking the proactive step of temporarily shutting down the main and installing a bypass line to service their customers.”

Inspectors from the city's Building Safety, Engineering and Environment Department also are assessing an adjacent structure at 10023 Fort Street for structural integrity to determine whether that building can be salvaged or will require partial or full demolition.

Dearborn Street buckled near W. Fort Street on Saturday. As a cautionary measure, DTE on Wednesday shut down a 24-inch, high-pressure natural gas pipe along Dearborn Street to avert a potential public safety issue and to allow the investigation into the ground shift to proceed safely.

City officials added Thursday that DTE's temporary bypass will interrupt the Great Lakes Water Authority’s normal wastewater solids processing at its regional Water Resource Recovery Facility and Biosolids Drying Facility on Jefferson.

This could result in a short-term increase in odor, the city said, because the water authority will not be able to maintain its typical odor control standard at the facility.

The storage of solids on the water resource facility site will not prevent GLWA from meeting the water quality requirements of its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System Permit and will not create any public health issues, the city said. 

But Casillas said the benefits coalition is "concerned about a heavy backup of human waste" at the treatment plant. 

"The stench can be unbearable and if there are heavy rains, what else are people going to have to endure?," he said.