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Flat Rock residents can go home, as search for cause of gas leak continues

Flat Rock assembly plant
State regulators and Ford officials continue to search for answers about how gasoline from a leaking pipe at the company’s Flat Rock assembly plant made its way into the 10,000-person city’s sewers. (Bridge photo by Kelly House)

All but a handful of Flat Rock residents were given permission to return home Thursday after hundreds were forced into hotels for weeks following a gasoline leak at the town’s Ford factory late last month, local and state health officials announced.

The Thursday announcement came 19 days after health officials recommended evacuations in two zones of the city where officials feared dangerous levels of hazardous fumes such as cancer-causing benzene from the gas leak could contaminate residents’ homes. All told, health officials recommended evacuations covering about 1,100 homes, though not everyone chose to leave.

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The crisis has strained relations between Flat Rock residents and the town’s largest employer, after Ford was slow to disclose the leak to state regulators after company workers discovered it on Sept. 1, despite knowing that state officials were trying to track down the source of gasoline that had been found in the city’s sewers the previous day.

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During angry public hearings in the days and weeks following, residents grilled Ford on its lackluster response and pressed the company to do more to repay residents for the crisis it caused. Those people living outside designated evacuation zones pressed government officials for clarity on whether their homes were at risk, and others inside evacuation zones expressed frustration at the lack of clear guidance about whether they should be worried about their health.

Ford covered hotel stays for residents in the evacuation zones and offered gift cards. It has also vowed to mail $500 to every affected household. Company spokesperson T.R. Reid told Bridge Michigan on Thursday that those checks are expected to be delivered early next week.

Some residents argue the money is not enough to compensate for what they’ve endured. They’ve called upon the company to commit to paying residents’ medical costs, should they eventually develop illnesses associated with exposure to benzene or other gasoline vapors.

Company officials have set up a $1 million community fund but have not committed to further financial contributions.

 

“That in-person dialogue will continue,” Reid said. “We will continue to listen to the community and try to understand their needs and make things right.”

State officials are still working to determine how gas from the leaking pipe went on to breach a compromised manhole on factory property, and then flow into the local sewer system.

Ford has installed monitoring wells around the leak site to sample groundwater to determine whether gasoline contaminated the area surrounding the leak, said Hugh McDiarmid, a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.

EGLE officials have not determined whether they’ll fine Ford for the leak, but have made it clear that Ford is responsible for all cleanup costs and any fines that may eventually be levied.

“Until the investigation is complete and we have a complete picture of what happened, we won’t be able to make an assessment on any sort of penalties that might be coming,” McDiarmid said.

In the weeks that followed the leak, the federal Environmental Protection Agency arrived on site and sent crews door-to-door to test air quality in homes within the evacuation zones. By Wednesday night, crews had sampled 32 homes in two prescribed city zones.

Analysis of those test results along with air monitoring data from the city’s sewers led state and county officials to give the all-clear Thursday afternoon for Zone 1 after giving the all-clear for Zone 2 earlier this week.   

“The vast majority of Zone 1 residents can return home immediately because testing and analysis has demonstrated that sewer line gasoline vapors have been cleared and are no longer a threat to the indoor air of homes,” the Thursday release from county and state health departments said.

Not all home required testing, health officials said, because investigators were able to extrapolate from sewer data and limited in-home tests to determine that air benzene levels across the evacuation zone are within established health limits.

Fewer than 15 homes remain evacuated, according to a release from the state. Those homes showed high levels of benzene during initial testing, or underwent EPA testing because of odors. Officials plan to further analyze their air, but could give occupants an all-clear as soon as later Thursday. 

In a statement, Wayne County Chief Operating Officer Genelle Allen thanked Flat Rock residents “for their resilience” during the crisis. 

“Our goal throughout this process is to protect residents’ health and safety,” Allen said. “I’m pleased that testing and analysis results allows us to recommend most Flat Rock residents can return home. Wayne County and MDHHS are working diligently to clear the remaining homes as soon as possible.”

Ford is still covering hotel costs for residents in the two evacuation zones who requested testing at their home and are still awaiting their written results, along with others who need more time to prepare for their move back home.

“We want to make the transition as smooth for them as possible,” said Reid, the company spokesperson. 

EPA officials who have been helping with the response are expected to hand oversight back solely to the state this weekend, McDiarmid said.

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