Most evacuated Flat Rock residents can 'immediately' return home

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Flat Rock — The last group of 600 households evacuated by an Aug. 30 gasoline spill at Ford's Flat Rock Assembly Plant can return home, state and city health officials announced Thursday.

The remaining evacuees lived in "Zone 1," closest to the spill, and they've been out of their homes for the better part of a month. Officials however have not yet cleared the return of residents of fewer than 15 homes that previously had reportable odors or concerning levels of benzene.

Mark Hammond, mayor of Flat Rock, speaks during a press conference on Friday, Sept. 3, 2021.

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

On Monday, another 600-plus households in "Zone two," near but not next to the affected area, were allowed to return home.

Zone 2 ran from Gibraltar Road to the north, Sheeks Road to the west, East Huron River Drive to the south and Tamarack to the east, as well as buildings along Woodruff between East Huron River Drive and Cahill Road. 

More:Flat Rock's Zone 2 'clear' of impact in gas leak; residents can return home

At its height, the gasoline spill displaced 1,200 families or one-third of Flat Rock's households. 

The families in Zone 1 can return home "immediately," Wayne County announced Thursday afternoon.

"This determination does not apply to occupants of homes that initially had elevated levels of benzene or had their homes tested by EPA because of odor complaints," the county said. "These homes will require further analysis before receiving their final clearance letter, which could happen as soon as today."

Owners of the affected homes have been notified.

Ford intends to keep providing support to residents until they can all return to their homes, according to T.R. Reid, the car manufacturer's director of corporate and public policy communications. 

"This surely is welcome news," Reid said on Thursday night. "But it isn't as if the matter is suddenly behind us and everybody else."

He added that people were not yet being asked to leave their hotels and that Ford would be willing to "reasonably" accommodate potential delays so as not to "add complexity and inconvenience." 

Residents who were affected by the leak, whether they chose to evacuate their homes or not, will receive a total of $1,000 in compensation, including certified checks and gift cards, according to Reid, who estimated that those would be delivered early next week. 

Zone one was declared safe even though only a fraction of the homes have been tested.

The county explained that "not all homes require indoor air testing because MDHHS (Michigan Department of Health and Human Services) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention paired data from sewer testing with some houses across Flat Rock that initially had elevated benzene levels or gasoline odors inside their homes to validate that air levels in homes are below health levels."

"MDHHS concluded that the indoor air of other homes in Zone 1 will not be at risk of being impacted from benzene or other gasoline-related chemicals now that the gasoline release has been stopped," the statement notes. 

"I’m pleased that Zone 1 residents now have assurance that the gas leak is not impacting the air quality in their homes,” said Michigan's chief medical executive, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, in a statement. 

Ford has said that it appears the leak of 1,400 gallons of gasoline started no earlier than Aug. 26. Regular air quality monitoring has confirmed the plant is safe for employees and others, the automaker has said.

More:Ford resumes production at Flat Rock plant following gas leak

Operations at the plant resumed Monday after a shutdown.

Ford continues sampling groundwater.

Jill Greenberg, a spokeswoman for EGLE, or Michigan's department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, said in a statement that "EGLE continues to work with Ford to investigate the release and determine exactly how the gasoline traveled into the sanitary sewer system."

While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and EGLE have shared oversight of the gasoline spill, EGLE will assume the role on its own starting Monday, Greenberg said.

Staff Writer Hani Barghouthi contributed.