Ford says Flat Rock Assembly Plant is 'likely source' of gasoline leak

Flat Rock — Ford Motor Co.'s Flat Rock Assembly Plant is the likely source of vapors in the city's sanitary system that prompted state of emergency declarations, according to the Dearborn automaker and state environmental officials on Friday evening.

Bob Holycross, Ford's vice president of sustainability, environment and safety engineering, said the automaker on Wednesday discovered "what originally looked to be a relatively small leak in a pipe that carries gasoline used to fuel vehicles built at the plant." But on Friday, he said, the company "determined that the scale of the fuel leak was much larger, and that Ford is the likely source of the problem in Flat Rock, for which we apologize."

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy said in an email late Friday that an estimated 1,000 to 3,000 gallons of unleaded gasoline are estimated to have spilled into the sewer system.

Fumes were first were detected in the city five days ago, leading to an evacuation that grew by Friday to 10 homes and a charter school. It also set off emergency declarations by local officials and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer as well as a response by more than dozens of federal, state and local agencies. 

"High" levels of the industrial chemical benzene had been detected within a 4-square-mile perimeter including the areas south of Vreeland Road, east of Cahill Road, north of Woodruff Road and west of Interstate 75, EGLE spokeswoman Jill Greenberg said. Gasoline sold in the U.S. contains benzene, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

As the company works to execute a "corrective plan," Holycross said, the plant — which builds Mustangs — will be shut down over the Labor Day weekend as previously planned. Ford said it also is in the process of isolating wastewater on its property from the city's system, assisting with cleanup efforts and "identifying people whose lives have been disrupted by this."

Flat Rock Mayor Mark Hammond held a Friday morning press conference about a suspected chemical leak in the city's sewer system. Ford Motor Co. and the Michigan environmental department later said the Ford assembly plant in Flat Rock was the source of the leak, which the company said was gasoline.

EGLE said in a Friday evening statement that the city of Flat Rock would use firefighting foam to "suppress" the vapors. The foam is "designed to bond with hydrocarbons" such as gasoline "to help break down the organic compounds." It will be applied inside sanitary sewers that were affected by the issue. The foam does not contain a group of chemicals known as PFAS.

Ford had taken measures, "including inserting plugs into the onsite sanitary sewer system to prevent it from entering the city's sanitary system" at the plant, which is located north of Gibraltar Road, Greenberg said.

Ford said that, upon discovering the leak on Wednesday, it shut down the fuel pipe, called in experts to remove gasoline from a containment tank and the primary storage tank, and notified officials. "We believed then that the leak was contained on our property," Holycross said.

Further investigation, however, uncovered Friday's finding of the larger-scale fuel leak, he said: "We're urgently addressing the matter; there's more we need to know in order to confidently develop and implement a corrective plan." Holycross said the company "take(s) our responsibilities as a corporate citizen and to protect the environment seriously" and has been working with city, state and federal agencies to address the situation.

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans declared an emergency Wednesday evening. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer followed suit Thursday night, declaring a state of emergency for Flat Rock as well as Wayne and Monroe counties.

A statement by Whitmer's office and her order said investigators found "high levels of an unknown gas" that have the "potential to be explosive."

Rick Konopka, 56, speaks about the gasoline smell coming from a manhole in front of his home on Olmstead Road in Flat Rock on Friday, Sept. 3, 2021.

The situation does not affect drinking water in the southern Wayne County community of 10,000, the county said in a statement.

Flat Rock Fire Chief James Katona said "hundreds" of personnel have helped out in Flat Rock in recent days, including mutual aid from Oakland and Monroe county agencies. 

EPA workers visited the charter school, River Heights Academy, late Friday morning but declined to discuss their work.

Evans signed the emergency order Wednesday evening, but a news release announcing it wasn’t sent until Thursday evening. Evans spokesman Bill Nowling would not directly address why officials waited 24 hours to notify the public of the emergency.

“The timing of the order does not impact the emergency response from county or state or feds, which were all on site Monday,” Nowling said.

Whitmer's declaration makes available state resources in cooperation with local response efforts, according to a statement.

"My top priority is ensuring that every resource is available to the city of Flat Rock, Wayne County and Monroe County to determine where the odor originated, so that we can clean up the affected area and prevent further harm," the statement from Whitmer's office said. "I’m grateful to the leadership in the city of Flat Rock, Wayne County, Monroe County and all of the first responders who have been on the ground keeping people safe."

Rick Konopka, 56, said he didn't notice any gasoline smell coming from a manhole in front of his home on Olmstead Road in Flat Rock until Friday morning. Flat Rock city workers took off the manhole cover days ago, he said.

Wayne County Commissioner Raymond Basham, whose district includes Flat Rock, noted all the steel, chemicals and petroleum have been processed in the area over the decades. 

"We're an industrial region," the Taylor Democrat said. "Any time there's environmental issues, I'm concerned."

Rick Konopka, 56, lives across the street from River Heights Academy. The manhole in his front yard was pried open by work crews days ago. It was still open Friday morning, surrounded by four orange cones and yellow caution tape.

“I don’t smell anything,” Konopka said as he emerged from his garage. “Crews have been here testing and working, and good for them.”

The front door at River Heights Academy in Flat Rock is open to air out the building on Friday, Sept. 3, 2021 due to a suspected chemical leak in the city's sewer system.

He was not worried about the odors, but as he approached the manhole, he caught his first whiff of trouble. It was the only time all week he’d noticed the smell, Konopka said.

Flat Rock residents who smell gasoline odors in their homes should call 734-782-2496, the county said.

People in other communities who smell gasoline should call 911.