Methane at Pontiac postal site probed after deaths

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

United States Postal Service officials are probing concerns about methane-level detection at a Pontiac site where five workers have allegedly died in the last two years.

Those deaths reported in a complaint are not believed to be tied to problems with the methane-detection system at the Michigan Metroplex Processing and Distribution Center, but the USPS Office of Inspector General is calling for “immediate action” to address the issue.

According to a management alert dated Feb. 22, the Metroplex is on a site previously used as a vehicle manufacturing plant that included a foundry and now considered a brownfield. When the postal service built the facility off Glenwood, a gas venting system was installed inside and under its foundation; a detection system placed in various enclosed spaces is “designed to detect and alert personnel of any seepage and accumulation of methane gas,” officials said.

In October 2014, the Postal Service took over the system’s maintenance from the vendor that installed it, according to the alert. “Based on our observations and review of the system log book, the MDS at the Metroplex has not been functioning properly since March 2015,” officials wrote.

Maintenance personnel have reported issues with the sensors that detect methane levels; workers also filed complaints at the National Postal Mail Handlers Union Local 307, which represents about 300 there, treasurer Ellen Carpenter said Wednesday night.

The Office of Inspector General has recommended that the detection system be reviewed periodically to resolve any issues.

“It is important to ensure that methane levels never spike to an extent that causes harm to individuals,” the management alert read. “Methane is odorless and colorless. Methane gas can be inhaled when it enters and accumulates in a building. If methane builds up in enclosed spaces, the health and safety of employees may be at risk and could result in medical complications.”

A third-party vendor’s evaluation on Jan. 15 “found no immediate health or safety concerns regarding methane levels,” according to the alert. “Management stated the evaluation confirms that employees are not presently at risk of methane levels within the facility.” Last month’s notice also indicated that managers have committed to evaluating the methane detection system and securing repairs as needed.

But workers are concerned, especially in light of the recent deaths, Carpenter said. She learned that one allegedly involved a woman who reported feeling ill before she was found dead in her car.

“People aren’t feeling well. There’s a lot of suspicion that they’re working in a poisoned building,” Carpenter said. “The biggest concern is the health and safety of the people who go in there everyday. How safe is the air?”