Flat Rock Mayor Mark Hammond and City Council members were grilled by residents Tuesday night after a gas spill last week led to evacuations: what’s happening with the city’s water supply? how do you access hotel vouchers? what about other assistance?
And when can we go home?
Hammond offered a brief update and said the city will host a town hall meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday for residents to question representatives of state and federal agencies who are involved in the reponse.
“To date we have 514 hotel rooms occupied and another 200 rooms available ot be filled,” Hammond said, noting that 1,100 homes have been evacuated so far between two evacuation zones identified by state health officials.
Hammond told residents to call 211 for information about where to get vouchers for hotel rooms and gift cards for Target, Appleby’s and Meijer that are being distributed by Ford Motor Co.
“Get on 211 and they’ll ferret it out,” Hammond said. “Call 211 and we’ll make sure you get a gift card from Ford.”
The meeting followed news that the benzene leak from a Ford Motor Co. assembly plant that pushed some residents from their homes can no longer be detected in some parts of the sewer system and there are only “trace amounts” in other pats, state officials said Tuesday.
Testing shows that the leak reported last week has resulted in no detectable fumes in parts of the sewer system, which is separate from Flat Rock’s drinking water system, said Jill Greenberg, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy.
But in other parts of the sewer system, there “trace amounts” of benzene that are well below the levels that are considered to be a “flammable risk,” she said Tuesday, amending an initial statement.
“Ford is conducting an investigation on-site with EPA oversight” to figure out why the line failed, Greenberg said.
Faith Hood said residents should be able to question officials from Ford and government agencies involved in the response. But Hammond couldn’t confirm who would be at Wednesday’s town hall.
Hood was among more than 100 residents to turn out for the council meeting Tuesday night and among several to ask about the yellow color of the city’s water. They were told the color is caused by “clean sediment” stirred up by flushing of the water system.
“Our drinking water system is not effected,” Hammond said.
The state has said the city’s drinking water is considered safe, but “the city is taking water samples out of an abundance of caution,” Greenbergsaid.
Hood wasn’t convinced.
“I love the city, it’s worth it to me, but now with this. I’ll be the elephant in the room, but I say it’s comparable to Flint,” Hood said to applause from several in the audience. “I don’t believe you guys are covering up, I believe you are telling us what you know.”
Mitigation measures have been ongoing since the spill was detected, officials have said. Ford plugged the leaking line at various points and then applied firefighting foam that does not contain PFAS to suppress the benzene vapors, environmental officials said. Sewers continue to be flushed, EGLE spokesman Hugh McDiarmid said Tuesday.
The EPA is sending a mobile lab to Flat Rock to begin testing the air inside homes, which will help the state determine when to lift its voluntary evacuation recommendation, according to state and federal officials.
“Right now we’re in the middle of the environmental emergency response. This is a really significant, environmental emergency,” Greenberg said. “And it’s taken all hands on deck. We’ve got federal agencies, local agencies, HAZMAT on the street. It’s really important that we take this seriously, and we have.”
The understating from Ford is that underground piping attached to a fuel storage tank leaked more than 1,000 gallons of gasoline, McDiarmid said. A full inspection of the area is ongoing, officials said.
The amount of time that residents have been exposed to the fumes still is under investigation, McDiarmid said.
If exposed to high levels of benzene, symptoms include headaches, dizziness, weakness and a rapid heart rate accompanied by drowsiness or sleepiness, said Michigan Chief Medical Executive Joneigh Khaldun on Sunday. Symptoms 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, Khaldun said.
The leak from the Ford plant, Greenberg said, went “directly into the sanitary sewer line that then went into the city” of Flat Rock.
A timeline of what led to the emergency is beginning to unfold.
On Aug. 30, “gasoline-like” odors were reported to the city, Mayor Mark Hammond said. Hammond notified the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday afternoon, and it responded, EGLE’s Greenberg said. State law requires the reporting of any oil spill into the waters of the state and a spill of at least 50 pounds or more of oil to the surface of the ground.
The state department “made calls to Ford, the three pipeline companies and the active gas station (last) Tuesday night and asked them to investigate their properties for potential chemical releases,” Greenberg said.
“EGLE conducted the on-site inspection with Ford on Wednesday,” she said. “According to Ford, they discovered the leak on Wednesday after the EGLE inspector left. EPA and EGLE were alerted to the spill on Thursday and immediately responded to the Ford Plant to do an on-site inspection.”
Wayne County Executive Warren Evans signed a state of emergency on Wednesday that wasn’t announced until Thursday, when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer followed shortly after with a state of emergency for Wayne and Monroe counties.
Bob Holycross, Ford’s vice president of sustainability, environment and safety engineering, said Friday night the automaker on Wednesday discovered “what originally looked to be a relatively small leak in a pipe that carries gasoline used to fuel vehicles built at the plant.” But on Friday, he said, the company “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.”
“High” levels of the industrial chemical benzene had been 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, Greenberg previously said. A larger area was recommended for evacuation on Sunday by state health officials but not required.
The City Council is holding a meeting at 7:30 p.m. at the city’s high school, a change from the original venue. The council meeting will be streamed live on the city’s Facebook page.
Staff Writer Melissa Nann Burke contributed.