Residents angry about gas leak tell Flat Rock, state and fed officials: 'Damage is done'

Hani Barghouthi
The Detroit News

Flat Rock — Beth Snodgrass joined dozens of residents at a tense town hall meeting Thursday evening to demand answers about the gasoline leak that has plagued the city for more than two weeks and caused the evacuation of nearly one-third of its 3,600 households. 

Local, state and federal officials held two back-to-back forums, an open house and the town hall, to offer updates and address questions on the football field at Flat Rock High School. They were joined by representatives from Ford Motor Co. and U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn. 

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.

Snodgrass, 34, a fifth-generation resident of Flat Rock, said her main concern was not the immediate aftermath of the leak, but future health issues it may cause.

"What (are we) going to do with these kids who are living here now, who've been exposed?" she asked. "The damage is done." 

"This is a blue-collar community. What is Ford going to do for us?"

Snodgrass' questions were echoed by several other community members at the town hall, which followed the Wayne County announcement Wednesday night that the sewer systems were cleared of traces of gasoline. 

Genelle Allen, chief operating officer for Wayne County, said officials expect to have information about a timeline for clearance for Zone 2 evacuees by early next week. For Zone 1, Allen said, more information is needed before a "definitive timeline" can be made for evacuees' return.

Zone 1 stretches from Interstate 75 to the east, Gibraltar Road to the north, Cahill Road to the west and Woodruff to the south.

Zone 2 runs from Gibraltar Road to the north, Sheeks Road to the west, East Huron River Drive to the south and Tamarack to the east, according to the state.

Faith Halley and her fiancé, Nicholas Cotter, both 21, were among residents who said they'd been getting mixed messages since the leak first was detected.

Halley, a college senior, said she initally had been told by City Hall that she needed to evacuate because her home was not safe when she called them weeks ago to see if her home was affected by the spill.

After she attempted to register for a hotel voucher, Halley said that she was told her evacuation would not be covered because her house was not in the areas designated for evacuations, but just outside in the surrounding area.

“Why am I not being helped? There are a lot of low-income people who do not have the money to relocate,” she said.

"I think our local leaders are doing their best," said John Sheet, 52, who evacuated his house along with his wife, Erin, before the meeting. "But I think they come off not looking so good.”

“I just get the impression that somebody, somewhere either isn't telling the truth, or was asleep at the wheel,” Sheet added. 

Joe DeGrazia of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) confirmed at the meeting that a faulty pipe that led to the leak had been repaired, the sewer line out of the Ford plant had been plugged and the underground fuel storage tank was emptied and would not hold gasoline until cleared for use. 

A gas-like odor was first reported by residents on Aug. 30, and by Sept. 1 had been traced to an underground pipe at Ford's Flat Rock Assembly Plant. Operations at the plant have paused until Monday, at the earliest. 

Ford announced on Tuesday it would send $500 checks to every household affected by the spill, along with paying for hotel rooms and meal vouchers while they are displaced.

When the question of possible fines against Ford was raised, DeGrazia and Trish Edwards of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said they would not be able to comment as long as the investigation into the leak continued. 

Mayor Mark Hammond again urged patience from residents, who have been told they may be "weeks out" from returning to their homes. 

Air monitoring and sampling by state and federal agencies continue inside homes and nearby buildings, as does testing of drinking water, which officials have confirmed was not contaminated by the spill. 

Detroit News Staff Writers Mark Hicks and James David Dickson contributed.