It was Saturday night when cell phones throughout a large part of Flat Rock started lighting up with emergency text messages recommending evacuation from a more than 3-square-mile area of the city. Benzene-containing fumes, at alarming levels, were spreading in the city’s sanitary sewer system, caused by a large fuel leak at the nearby Ford assembly plant.
But residents have known about an environmental problem since some began smelling the fumes on Tuesday. Some residents of the Hickory Ridge subdivision were evacuated Thursday, after their homes tested for high levels of benzene, a fuel byproduct and potential carcinogen.
Frustrated residents speaking Sunday cited lacking, inconsistent communication from the city and emergency responders, leaving the residents themselves to try to fill in information gaps. Responding health officials at a press conference, however, said they’re trying to be transparent, and give the best advice they can in an evolving environmental emergency.
“What do you do? Who do you believe? What do you know? There’s so much stuff out there from everybody, you just don’t know where to start,” said Teresa Gutekunst, who lives on Scott Avenue.
“I started where they said, ‘Call 211.’ They sent me to the police station. The police station sends me to City Hall, and a lady there says, ‘No; you’re not in Zone 1 (the area recommended for evacuation); you’re in Zone 2 (an adjacent area where further evaluation is occurring).’ But according to the perimeter they have out on the map, we are Zone 1, not Zone 2.”
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Gutekunst was among about 40 residents of the Preserves at Bradbury Park subdivision, gathered in a grassy area Sunday afternoon to hear updates from homeowners association board president David Eldridge and board secretary Tom Nowicki, who had attended a press conference held by city and public health officials earlier Sunday morning.
Throughout the press conference and talking to residents after the conference, officials expressed that they are doing their best to communicate clearly and transparently. They also reiterated that it’s best for individuals to evacuate if they live in Zone 1, out of an abundance of caution.
“Not everyone’s home has been tested and the levels and homes that have been tested may change,” said Elizabeth Hertel, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services director. “Therefore, we cannot say at this time that the area or home is not impacted by this gasoline release. We do not at this time have a full understanding of how far or where this gasoline release has traveled in the sanitary sewer system.”
Kory Groetsch, environmental public health director for the department of health and human services, said it is a “voluntary, recommended evacuation,” meaning residents have to make the decision for themselves.
“I can bring half the knowledge, which is the science, but the other half is how people feel about it in the community, how you process risk,” Groetsch said.
Talking to residents after the press conference, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive for the state, told residents she would personally evacuate if she was in Zone 1.
Hertel noted officials are unsure what the timeline on this will be, but that they are bringing in special equipment and hope evacuated residents would be able to return as quickly as possible.
At the Preserves of Bradbury Park subdivision meeting, residents had questions. One woman said she was evacuating to Dearborn, and wondered how her high school-age children will attend school, or if it will be offered remotely. Another asked what people with several pets could do. A third woman asked the gathered crowd who all was staying put; about half raised their hands.
“My concern is just for the safety of the neighborhood — if people do decide to leave, making sure their property is protected,” Eldridge said.
“If it wasn’t for a Facebook group, and people being on Facebook and sharing information that way, the official channels have been very dark.
“Families are getting displaced, there are a lot of problems that go with that.”
Ford Motor Co. spokesman T.R. Reid said Sunday that as investigation has continued to understand and address the fuel leak at the Flat Rock assembly plant, the company has also worked with the city mayor’s office to provide for those affected or displaced by the spill.
That includes securing hotels for those who need them, and gift cards for necessities such as food and drinks, he said. With the potential list of those requiring help expanding greatly with the recommended evacuation order, Reid said Ford is working to stay ahead of the need.
“It’s a huge issue for them, a huge inconvenience, for which we’ve apologized. But apologizing is not enough,” he said.
“It’s our commitment to make it right – not only the leak itself going forward, but the way people are being affected in the meantime.”
The Flat Rock assembly plant was closed for the long Labor Day holiday weekend.
“Whenever we bring people back, we’re going to do it when we can make sure it is safe,” Reid said.
Steve Kodlowski remained at his home Sunday on Port Street, within the recommended evacuation zone. He lives there with his aunt and two children, ages 12 and 16.
“Once I figure out more of what’s happening, I’ll decide whether we should leave,” he said. “I know (the fuel spill) was nearby. I haven’t really stressed about it yet. I’m been watching it as close as I can on the news.”
Kodlowski said he believes officials are handling the situation “as well as they can.”
“No one has knocked on my door yet, but they have a lot of doors to knock on in this area,” he said.
Another Port Street resident, Lynn Cortese, said she hasn’t smelled any fumes.
“I’m disappointed they haven’t told us more, and sooner,” she said. “It took from when this all started to get this emergency message.”
Cortese lives in the home with her husband, their son and her grandson, who is 3 years old.
“It is definitely a concern — we were all out playing in the yard the other day,” she said.
Gutekunst said she watched as utility crews and the local fire department evaluated a manhole cover at a home across the street Wednesday, where the owner complained about a smell. On Thursday, that home and some others were evacuated.
“But for us, nothing was done; nothing was said,” she said.
“They’re being very tight-lipped, apparently because this could affect a lot stuff with the city and Ford Motor Co. I understand that, but on the other hand, as residents of the city, we should be made aware. We should know what’s going on.”
The concerns around transparency have led Gutekunst to question whether there is more to the story of the leak, and, specifically, whether benzene is the only chemical affecting the area.
“That’s my fear — what are we being exposed to?” she said.
Contact Keith Matheny: 313-222-5021 or email@example.com.