Mayor: Flat Rock evacuees 'weeks out' from return home after gas spill

Flat Rock — Residents of 1,200 households in the city evacuated by a recent gasoline spill are "weeks out" from returning home, but Ford Motor Co. said Monday it has repaired the leaking pipe at its assembly plant that caused the problem. 

Flat Rock Mayor Mark Hammond said he's urging "patience," noting homes are still being tested for contaminants from the spill into the city's sewer system two weeks ago.

Ford on Monday also said it has extended its "downtime" for the Flat Rock Assembly Plant, the source of the Aug. 30 gasoline spill, until Sept. 20, at the absolute earliest.

"We're weeks out yet (from residents returning home)," Hammond told The News. "There are several steps involved, and each of those steps takes days. I know it's not convenient, but we're asking for patience right now."

Indoor air testing at individual homes has just begun. Two were tested Sunday and eight more on Monday, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is leading the testing effort. 

That's 10 out of 1,200 affected households south of Gibraltar Road, east of East Huron River Drive, north of Woodruff and west of Interstate 75.

Hammond said the testing process is itself lengthy. The day before a reading can be taken, potential sources of toxins, such as open paint cans, have to be removed from the home. The screening is done on the second visit. 

The sewer lines, officials said, are back to normal. What remains is a sampling, monitoring and clearance process that Hammond said will take weeks. 

Flat Rock, state and federal officials will give a public update at 6 p.m. Tuesday on the football field at Flat Rock High School, Hammond said. 

"Our virtual town hall meetings have been less than successful," Hammond said. "People want to be able to look us in the eye. We wanted to do it outside to account for the COVID situation."

The city on Sunday posted a five-part re-occupancy plan to its social media channels. That process involves screening the sanitary sewer system, air sampling, data monitoring, data analysis and clearance decisions for each home, and additional screening and sampling for homes that are not yet cleared to be reoccupied.

Hammond has advised people within the affected area to evacuate, and to stay out until given the all-clear. 

They've claimed some 500 hotel rooms, Hammond said. Others are with family, friends or on second properties elsewhere. 

Hammond last week said that no contaminants from the spill had been found in schools in the city. 

"Testing is ongoing," he said during a Friday briefing for residents posted on YouTube. "The testing is happening in sewers and homes. It's not complete."

The mayor was joined at the briefing by city engineer Bruce Hammond who noted that firefighting foam has been "successful" in dropping the levels of gasoline vapors in the sewer system. The mayor and city engineer are cousins, Mark Hammond said.

"It has a bacteria in it that binds to the gasoline and encapsulates it and stops vapors from entering into the sewer," Bruce Hammond said. "This was successful. Readings are significantly down."

In the Hickory Ridge subdivision and a few others, the city embarked on a "24-hour" flushing effort. Fire hydrants would be connected to manholes and the foam would be applied to the sewer system.

"Our goal was to flush out any fumes," Bruce Hammond said. "Our readings have gone down, almost to zero."

Some Flat Rock residents complained of yellow water, the mayor added. But that is attributed to the mitigation of the sewer contamination — the flushing process — and not to the contamination itself, he said. 

"If you let your faucet flow a little bit, it will clear up," engineer Bruce Hammond said. "It's not a danger to anybody."

Bruce Hammond said that the Patriot Act of 2001 precluded him from showing a detailed map of the sewer system, as it represents infrastructure that affects people's lives.

For Flat Rock parents concerned about the schools, he said: "Our schools are continuously being monitored. And they are, at this time, clear of contaminants but the testing will continue in our schools."

Mark Hammond said the community center, which is in an area affected by the spill, remains closed. Testing continues on the facility and "as soon as it is cleared, we will open it and convey that information to you," he said. "We're very sorry for the inconvenience."

The gasoline spill prompted state and county officials to declare a state of emergency

Fumes were first noticed in the Hickory Ridge subdivision, south of Vreeland, east of Telegraph. Officials were concerned that the fumes were an explosive hazard. Last Monday, state officials said the danger of explosion had been mitigated.

However, benzene, toluene and xylene — components of gasoline — are still a potential hazard, according to officials.

All three are poisonous and exposure to benzene fumes over a long period may cause serious health problems. An Environmental Protection Agency mobile laboratory was brought to Flat Rock last week to test for harmful vapors in the city's sewers, homes and buildings.

Jill Greenberg, spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, said Monday that the state investigation into the leak is "ongoing."

On Sept. 3, state environmental officials and Ford Motor Co. said the automaker's Flat Rock Assembly Plant was likely the source of the fumes. Ford said it discovered a large leak in a pipe that carries gasoline to the plant was likely the cause. The factory uses the gasoline to fuel the Ford Mustangs it builds.

On Sept. 8, Paul Owens, district supervisor of EGLE's Warren office, sent a demand letter to Ford. Owens' letter laid out several corrective actions Ford must take. Among them: Ford must mitigate fire hazards, it must ensure no further leaks are taking place, and it must write daily progress reports to EGLE, until EGLE says it can stop.

Ford responded on Sept. 10, identifying 13 actions it had taken to mitigate the gasoline spill and keep local leaders informed.

In the Sept. 10 letter, Ford also laid out a six-part plan through Sept. 19. Among the items in that plan:

  • Smoke test and if necessary, dye study of storm and sanitary sewers. The purpose of these studies is to assess whether there are any locations onsite where stormwater or spills are or were entering the sanitary sewer and could possibly leave the site via sanitary sewer. 
  • If deemed appropriate, performance of a soil gas investigation throughout the area where the release was discovered and throughout the (sewer) system area including utility corridors. Investigation results will help direct investigative efforts to identified hot spots. Additionally, the investigation will be an initial and assess potential vapor intrusion. 

Greenberg said Monday that dye testing was conducted in the area Friday afternoon. 

"Ford is planning to use an air knife — used to cut through soil without damaging underground utility infrastructure — to verify utility and piping locations," Greenberg explained. "Afterwards, excavation activities near the release area and oil-water separation process will begin."

State officials said an estimated 1,000 to 3,000 gallons of unleaded gasoline spilled into the sewer system.

Ford has created a $1 million relief fund and lined up hotel rooms for people who evacuated their homes.

Twitter: @CharlesERamirez