Flat Rock – State officials are urging residents of several Flat Rock neighborhoods to evacuate their homes during an ongoing investigation into a gasoline-related chemical leak from a Ford Motor Co. plant.
Officials say they are unaware of how many residents could potentially have been exposed to the chemical that can cause health problems if exposed to a large dose or over a longer period of time. As of Sunday, about a dozen homes have been evacuated in Flat Rock where 10,500 people live, according to the 2020 census.
“We don’t believe there is any imminent danger to residents at this time,” Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Elizabeth Hertel said during a Sunday morning press briefing. But Hertel said officials are still asking people in the impacted areas to leave “out of an abundance of caution.”
A virtual town hall will be held at 7 p.m. Sunday on Facebook to address resident concerns and will include numerous state and local officials.
The first evacuation began Thursday. Later, Friday more were ordered. Nine homes, one business, and one charter school have so far been evacuated.
Residents who choose to evacuate will not be expected to pay for accommodations, officials said, and should call United Way at 211 for assistance.
The genesis of the leak was from a gasoline storage tank at Ford’s Flat Rock Assembly Plant, which builds the company’s Mustang sports car. The tank is used to fuel up the cars after they are built, according to T.R. Reid, a Ford spokesperson.
Odors from Flat Rock’s sewer system prompted officials to reach out Monday to a variety of businesses in the community, including Ford. By Wednesday, the automaker identified what it thought was a small gas leak.
“We thought it was small, and we thought it was contained at the time,” said Reid. “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 stem the problem, and to look at the entire system and identify what was wrong.
Reid said that Ford believes it has identified what was wrong, and are working with officials to correct it. But the process is still ongoing, he said.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tests found concerning levels of benzene, over 6 parts per billion in sanitary sewers in some homes. An estimated 1,400 gallons of unleaded gasoline spilled into the sewer system from a storage tank that leaked from the Ford Flat Rock Assembly Plant, according to the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.
The EPA requires oil refinery owners to maintain annual benzene levels at or below 2.8 parts by 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 late Saturday press release 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, found in gasoline, had leaked into the sewage system in southeast areas of the city near Elmstead and Gibraltar Roads. Benzene is a colorless hazardous air pollutant that has a slightly sweet odor, according to the EPA.
Hertel was joined at the press conference at Flat Rock Community High School by Mayor Mark Hammond and other officials.
“The sewer lines currently are clear of volatile (flammable) materials,” said Hammond, who added that the leak appeared to have been contained within Flat Rock.
Dr. Joneigh Khaldoun, 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, Khaldoun said, 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.”
City residents also individually met with the officials following the press conference to ask questions and express concerns. Some complained that Ford Motor Co. representatives were not present. EGLE officials on Sunday directed further questions about the Ford leak to the automaker.
Residents who spoke with the News after the meeting expressed confusion and frustration.
“We don’t know who to believe, we don’t know what to believe,” resident Teresa Gutekunst said. “They’re not being very honest or upfront,” she said.
Gutekunst said she called 211 about the leak and was sent to the police station, and the 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.”
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 about a year with their three boys — 18, 17, and 2 — and two dogs, Maverick and Roscoe, are planning 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 said being so close to the plant had never crossed their minds as a healthy and safety issue.
“Not at all,” Gabe said. “I’ve never driven by and seen dark clouds overhead.”
The city’s drinking water is considered safe because the leak is contained to the sewer system, which is separate from the water system, EGLE’s Jill Greenberg said in a Sunday email.
The potential health emergency originally 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.
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 in a Friday evening statement that the city of Flat Rock 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.
Flat Rock 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.
Another big spill happened on June 7, 2000, in Jackson County’s Blackman Township when a pipeline that carried 30% of Michigan’s gasoline ruptured and forced 600 families to flee their homes.
Staff Writers James Dickson and Jordyn Grzelewski contributed.