Flat Rock residents weigh evacuation after health official says gas leak no 'imminent danger'

Hani Barghouthi and Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Flat Rock — State officials are urging residents of several Flat Rock neighborhoods to evacuate their homes during an investigation into a gasoline-related chemical leak from a Ford Motor Co. plant.

Officials said Sunday they did not have a number for how many residents potentially have been exposed to the chemical that leaked into Flat Rock's sewer system and can cause health problems if exposure comes in a large dose or over a long period.

The voluntary evacuations followed orders for the evacuation of nine homes, a business and a charter school beginning Thursday. As of Sunday, about a dozen homes had evacuated in the city with a population of about 10,500. Residents who leave will not be expected to pay for accommodations, officials said, and should call United Way at 211 for help.

“We don't believe there is any imminent danger to residents at this time,” said Elizabeth Hertel, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, during a Sunday press briefing.

But Hertel said officials are asking residents in the affected areas to voluntarily leave “out of an abundance of caution.”

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An estimated 1,400 gallons of unleaded gasoline, which contains benzene, leaked into  the sewer system from a storage tank at the Ford Motor Co. Flat Rock Assembly Plant, according to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE). Benzene is a colorless, flamable liquid that has a slightly sweet odor.

The leak came from a gasoline storage tank at the assembly plant, which builds Mustangs and dates to 1987. The tank is used to fuel the cars after they are built, said T.R. Reid, a Ford spokesman.

Residents were concerned and dismayed about the limited information after the Sunday voluntary evacuations were announced.

“We don’t know who to believe, we don’t know what to believe," said Teresa Gutekunst. "They’re not being very honest or upfront."

Gutekunst said she called 211 about the leak and was sent to the police station; police sent her to City Hall. There, she said she was told she didn't live in the area closest to the leak, Zone 1, "but it’s clear on the map that we are Zone 1.”

Odors from Flat Rock's sewer system prompted city officials to reach out Monday to  businesses in the community, including Ford, where the automaker employs 1,900 people at the plant. By Wednesday, the automaker identified what it said was a small gas leak, which it didn't publicly acknowledge until Friday evening.

"We thought it was small, and we thought it was contained at the time," Reid said. "By Thursday, we found out neither of those things was wholly accurate. ... It was significantly larger."

Ford alerted authorities and blocked its lines to the city's sanitary sewer, Reid said. The company also drained fuel from the tank and the tank's retention container to look at the entire system and identify what was wrong, he said.

Reid said Ford believes it has identified what was wrong and is working with officials to correct it. But the process is ongoing, he said.

He declined to address whether the leak was stopped, deferring to officials from the Environmental Protection Agency and EGLE.

"They have authority here and there are proper procedures, and I want to be respectful of them," Reid said.

During an hour-long virtual town hall with residents on Sunday evening on Facebook, Tricia Edwards of the EPA said a process is underway to determine where the release took place.

"We have been identifying that there are numerous lines that enter into the main sanitary line on the Ford Motor Co. property and then it connects to the city sewer main," Edwards said. 

Each of the lines have been plugged ... so there is no release of product moving within the sanitary property that is entering the Flat Rock sewer district, Edwards said.

"That has allowed us to take more agressive measures off-site such as the flushing that we are doing with copious amounts of water in the area, and we also (did) a foaming operation ... and we are having great success with that," Edwards said.

Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Elizabeth Hertel gives an update Sunday on the Flat Rock gas leak.

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Flat Rock Mayor Mark Hammond saidduring the town hall that the city needs to do better keeping residents informed, and said updates would regularly appear on the city's website and social media accounts twice a day, at 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. A pipeline map also was expected to be posted soon.

"The city realized that we are not doing an adequate job of informing the public," Hammond said.

Bob Holycross, Ford vice president of sustainability, environment and safety engineering, said the health and safety of residents are the company's "No. 1 priority."

"I want to apologize again for what happened, and to the people whose lives have been impacted," Holycross said during the meeting.

He said the company believed the leak was contained to Ford's property in the city, but further investigation determined "the scale of the fuel leak was much larger and that Ford is the source of the problem in Flat Rock."

The plant is closed through Labor Day weekend. Waste water is being isolated on the Ford property away from the city's system, and residents' needs are being supported, he said.

Many who logged on to hear the town hall asked questions in the chat section of the session, such as how long residents have been exposed and how did Ford miss the gas leak. Their questions were not answered during the meeting.

Why water isn't affected

The contamination does not affect drinking water because the leak from Ford's plant went into the sewer system, which is separate from the water system, state environmental officials said.

Flat Rock's water comes from the Great Lakes Water Authority, the regional organization that treats the drinking water for a large part of southeast Michigan, said Elin Betanzo, a drinking water expert. All of their intakes are from the Detroit River or Lake Huron.

"Since the spill is happening in the Flat Rock community's sewer system, the contamination is local, where these homes are, but their drinking water is coming from a different place," said Bentanzo, a former Environmental Protection Agency official who founded a Detroit-based consulting firm, Safe Water Engineering.

But people with private wells on their property could potentially be affected, she said.

What EPA testing found

EPA tests found concerning levels of benzene, over 6 parts per billion, in sanitary sewers in some homes in the city. The EPA requires oil refinery owners to maintain annual benzene levels at or below 2.8 parts per billion. The federal action level does not necessarily signify emissions that present an unacceptable risk to the public," according to the Texas environmental protection commission

Because it is unclear where the chemicals have traveled, the state and Wayne County health departments said in a press release late Saturday that they want to ensure residents are aware that chemicals could have migrated to a larger area.

The broader area is bound by Gibraltar Road to the north, Sheeks Road to the west, East Huron Drive to the south and Tamarack Road to the east, according to a Michigan State Police release. Buildings along Woodruff between East Huron River Drive and Cahill Road also are being investigated.

"High" levels of the industrial chemical benzene original were 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.

“Not everyone's home has been tested, and the levels in homes that have been tested may have changed,” Hertel said about what was described as a rapidly evolving situation. “Therefore, we cannot say at this time that the air in your home is not impacted by this.”

Authorities last week responded to a household report of a “gasoline-type odor” in the area and determined through testing that benzene had leaked into the sewage system in southeast areas of the city near Elmstead and Gibraltar Roads.

“The sewer lines currently are clear of volatile (flammable) materials,” said Flat Rock Mayor Mark Hammond, who added that the leak appeared to have been contained within Flat Rock.

How benzene affects health

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, Michigan’s chief medical executive, highlighted the potential symptoms associated with benzene exposure, noting that testing for it is difficult because, if inhaled, the substance leaves the bloodstream quickly.

If exposed to high levels of benzene, symptoms include headaches, dizziness, weakness, a rapid heart rate accompanied by drowsiness or sleepiness, Khaldun said Sunday, and can appear within minutes of exposure. Long-term exposure, around a year, can affect blood cell count and weaken the immune system, potentially leading to blood cancer.

“Very, very high levels of exposure to benzene can cause death,” she added. “Thus far in our response, we have not seen benzene levels in the homes tested at that level.”

Teresa Gutekunst, 50, of Flat Rock, said she is frustrated by what she considers conflicting information from officials.
Tom Nowicki, secretary of the homeowners association at the Preserves of Bradbury Park, said residents he has talked to plan to stay in their homes and wait it out.

Tom Nowicki, secretary of the Bradbury Park homeowners association, said residents he has talked to are staying put for now.

“They say it’s a voluntary, recommended evacuation. If it was serious, they would have come last night and knocked on our door," Nowicki said. "Police would say you have to leave.” 

Nowicki said he wants more answers from Ford. 

"I want them to tell us their plan going forward for the residents that were affected," Nowicki said. "What are they doing to help us?"

Gabe Lance, 36, and wife Holly, 36, who have lived near the Ford plant for about a year with their three boys — 18, 17, and 2 — and two dogs, Maverick and Roscoe, planned  to evacuate. On Sunday afternoon, they were on a list for alternative lodgings and waiting for a call back.

The couple said they believe staying in a hotel is a better option than staying and waiting to learn whether their home is safe. Gabe Lance said being so close to the plant had never crossed their minds as a health and safety issue. 

“Not at all,” Gabe said. “I’ve never driven by and seen dark clouds overhead.”

The potential health emergency was declared by Wayne County Executive Warren Evans on Thursday, after signing it on Wednesday. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer followed suit late Thursday by expanding the state of emergency to Wayne and Monroe counties. 

The scent of gasoline was observed Thursday outside a pump station at Olmstead and Cottonwood in Flat Rock. Wayne County has declared a state of emergency as local, state and environmental officials work to pinpoint the cause of the odor. Wayne County Executive Warren Evans has asked Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to declare an emergency as well to speed cleanup efforts.

Evans spokesman Bill Nowling would not directly address why officials waited 24 hours to notify the public of the emergency between Evans' Wednesday signing of the state of emergency and the declaration on Thursday.

“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.

EGLE said Friday that Flat Rock officials 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.

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.

Spills from gasoline tankers and pipelines are not uncommon in Michigan.

Much of the debate over the future of Enbridge Energy's Line 5 pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac centers on the potential of a spill.

The Marshall area in southern Michigan was the site of one of the nation's worst inland oil spills on July 25, 2010, when an Enbridge 30-inch pipeline ruptured and spilled an estimated 843,000 gallons of oil that eventually flowed into the  Kalamazoo River.

Staff Writers James Dickson and Jordyn Grzelewski contributed.