‘Is it safe?’ -- Area of concern grows in Flat Rock after hazardous chemical found in sewer system

Ford says its Flat Rock Assembly Plant likely source after discovering leak in pipe

Area of concern grows in Flat Rock with flammable chemical found in sewers

FLAT ROCK, Mich. – Investigators in Flat Rock said high levels of benzene have been detected in a 4-square-mile perimeter involving the areas south of Vreeland Road, east of Cahill Road, north of Woodruff Road and west of Interstate 75.

Officials said the city plans to use firefighting foam to suppress the vapors found within the sanitary system. The industrial facility has taken measures, including inserting plugs into the onsite sewer system to prevent it from entering the system at a location north of Gibraltar Road at the Ford Flat Rock Assembly Plant property.

“The emulsifying foam solution, which does not contain the contaminant PFAS, is designed to bond with hydrocarbons (like gasoline) to help break down the organic compounds. It will be applied inside impacted sanitary sewers to lower combustibility,” read a press release.

People have been told to leave their homes and classes have been canceled at one school as environmental officials worked to find the source of the chemical.

Flat Rock officials said if residents smell the odor or feel ill, contact them immediately and get to fresh air.

“Everyone is going to be outdoors for barbecues and parties,” said Nicole Laurain. “Is it safe?”

Laurain’s concerns are growing by the day as the emergency continues to grow.

Local 4 Defenders has learned that the highly-flammable sweet smelling chemical benzine has been found in the sewers. The potential carcinogen is on the move, making it difficult for investigators to pinpoint where it is and where it came from.

Federal, state and local environmental officials have been going door-to-door measuring for volatile compounds in the homes. Levels are so high in seven homes that the families can’t be in them.

Recess was canceled at two Flat Rock schools Thursday.

River Heights Academy was closed Friday due the the high levels of potentially flammable fumes inside the school.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has called a State of Emergency. Hundreds of flags identifying gas lines have been placed as crews look for any evidence of gas leaks.

Residents want to know how long it will take to clean up and how long before an all-clear can be given.

“If we really need to be looking out for something, we need more direction on what we need to do,” Laurain said.

“We need to capture this elusive environmental problem and move forward,” said Mayor Mark Hammond.

The EPA and EGLE were working with Ford Motor Company at its Flat Rock plant to see if the chemicals could be coming from it.

On Friday, Ford issued a statement Thursday saying it was likely source.

“We take our responsibilities as a corporate citizen and to protect the environment seriously. We’ve been working with city, state and federal agencies over the last several days to understand and address the issue in Flat Rock.

“Wednesday afternoon, we discovered what originally looked to be a relatively small leak in a pipe that carries gasoline used to fuel vehicles built at the plant. We shut down the fuel pipe, called in experts to remove gas from a containment tank and the primary storage tank, and notified officials of what we found. We believed then that the leak was contained to our property.

“With support from outside experts, we continued to investigate. Today, we determined that the scale of the fuel leak was much larger, and that Ford is the likely source of the problem in Flat Rock, for which we apologize. We’re urgently addressing the matter; there’s more we need to know in order to confidently develop and implement a corrective plan. In the meantime, as planned, the plant will be closed through the Labor Day weekend. As a precaution, we’re in the process of isolating wastewater on our property from the city’s system. Ford is assisting government officials as cleanup work begins in the community.

“With officials, we’re also identifying people whose lives have been disrupted by this and are committed to helping those neighbors as we work through this problem.

“We will provide additional information as it becomes available.”

Bob Holycross, Ford vice president of Sustainability, Environment and Safety Engineering

More: Downriver news

About the Authors:

Local 4 Defender Shawn Ley is an Emmy award-winning journalist who has been with Local 4 News for more than a decade.

Dane is a producer and media enthusiast. He previously worked freelance video production and writing jobs in Michigan, Georgia and Massachusetts. Dane graduated from the Specs Howard School of Media Arts.