Delay in telling public of Flat Rock gas spill emergency unintentional, Evans says

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans on Thursday acknowledged the rocky rollout in the handling of a gasoline leak from a Ford Motor Co. plant into Flat Rock's sewer system but said a nearly 24-hour delay in notifying residents of the emergency wasn't intentional. 

Evans signed an emergency declaration at 5:32 p.m. on Sept. 1 over the hazardous material detected in the Downriver community's sewer plant two days earlier. That order wasn't publicly distributed until after 5 p.m. Sept. 2. 

Warren Evans, during a Thursday editorial board meeting with The Detroit News, said there was nothing normal about the gasoline leak in Flat Rock and the involvement of multiple agencies ranging from city to county to state and federal made it all the more challenging to coordinate.

Evans, during an editorial board meeting with The Detroit News, said there was nothing normal about the incident and the involvement of multiple agencies ranging from city to county officials to state and federal agencies made it all the more challenging to coordinate. 

"The public had a right to know immediately," said Evans, adding his assumption was that the emergency notice was distributed right away. "I'm not sure personally where there was a roadblock, if there was one about people getting the information on time. Certainly, if that's true, it certainly made a bad situation worse in terms of the stresses on the homeowner trying to figure out "OK, you said there's a noxious gas, there's a problem here, what do we do about it?"

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 spilled into the sewer system. That estimate was later revised to 1,400 gallons, according to Jill Greenberg, a spokeswoman for the environmental department.

Ford Motor Co.'s Flat Rock Assembly Plant was identified as the source of the vapors that led to the eventual evacuation of 1,100 homes in the community of 10,500 residents. 

The Detroit News reported Thursday that a day after a Sept. 1 inspection turned up no evidence of a gasoline leak at the Ford plant, an anonymous tip led state environmental inspectors to return to the plant a day later on Sept. 2. When state inspectors arrived again, the Dearborn-based automaker informed the state that a leak had been found the day prior, said Greenberg. 

The leak was missed by state inspectors earlier on Sept. 1 because "all visible signs of the leak were underground," Greenberg said. But Ford officials told the state, after inspectors arrived in pursuit of the anonymous tip, that it discovered the leak after an inspector left Sept. 1, she added.

Ford plugged the sewer lines leading from its plant to municipal sewers the next day on Sept. 3, stopping the spread after the 1,400 gallons of gasoline had leaked, Greenberg said.

Evans said Thursday that he believes that Ford "has been pretty standup about it being an issue that they needed to jump into and try to fix."

The executive attributed hiccups early on to "personalities" and the "egos involved."

"Who is the point-person for this and who is for that?" he said. "Which pocket are we going to put the ego in? It takes a little while to shake out. Not necessarily who is in charge, but how is the flow of information going ... The response went almost as smoothly as you're going to find with all of those entities involved."

Evans stressed there "didn't seem to be anything withheld for nefarious reasons... or anything withheld period," although the time noted in his order and the email notifying media agencies clearly show the one-day lag in notifying the community that he had declared an emergency.

Evans said officials are "getting much closer" to identifying where the readings within safe levels are and where they are not to give residents some assurances that homes are safe or unsafe.

The effort, he contends, has included a lot of door-to-door canvassing and volunteers.

"We should know in the next day or two, with the equipment that's there, just what the extent is," he said. "Has enough dissipated or are there hot spots? We have machinery now to make that determination and hopefully they are doing that as we speak and we'll have some resolution very soon."

Evans said officials don't anticipate any long-lasting effects from the gasoline leak and he's not aware of any groundwater impact and drinking water, he said, wasn't affected since the leak was contained in the sewer lines. 

The response to the vapor issue, he said, wasn't more problematic than normal. There wasn't anything normal about it, he said. 

"It's not an explosion where everybody understands what to do," he said. "This is one of those that you can't really even train for it. I kind of wish in all of these situations we could all be perfect, but the reality is we're not going to be."