Ford says the Flat Rock assembly plant is a “likely source” of gasoline leaks

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Flat stone Ford Motor Co.’s Flat Rock assembly plant is the likely source of fumes found in the city’s plumbing system this week, automaker Dearborn and state environmental officials said in separate statements Friday night.

Bob Holycross, Ford’s vice president of sustainability, environment and safety, said the Dearborn automaker discovered on Wednesday “what originally looked like a relatively small leak in a pipe that carries gasoline used to transport factory-built vehicles refuel. ” But on Friday, he said, the company “determined that the extent of the fuel leak was much greater and that Ford is the likely cause of the problem at Flat Rock, for which we apologize.”

Gasoline-like smells were first detected in the city five days ago, resulting in an evacuation that grew to seven houses and a charter school by Friday, triggering the county and state emergency declarations.

Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy spokeswoman Jill Greenberg said officials are still working to determine how much chemicals have spilled into the sewers.

“High” concentrations of the industrial chemical benzene were found within 4 square miles, including areas south of Vreeland Road, east of Cahill Road, north of Woodruff Road and west of Interstate 75, Greenberg said. US gasoline contains benzene, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Greenberg said state officials are still working to identify the chemical, despite Ford claiming it is likely gasoline.

While the company works on implementing a “corrective plan,” Holycross said, the plant – which builds Mustangs – will close over Labor Day weekend as previously planned. Ford said it was also in the process of isolating sewage on its property from the city’s system, helping with clean-up operations and “identifying people whose lives it has disrupted.”

EGLE said in a statement on Friday evening that the city would use Flat Rock fire fighting foam to “suppress” the fumes. The foam is “designed to combine with hydrocarbons such as gasoline to help break down the organic compounds”. It is used inside sewers that have been affected by the problem. The foam does not contain a group of chemicals known as PFAS.

Ford has taken measures “including inserting plugs in the local sewer system to prevent it from entering the city’s plumbing system,” Greenberg said at the plant north of Gibraltar Road.

Ford said that after discovering the leak on Wednesday, it closed the fuel line, called in experts to remove gasoline from a containment container and primary storage tank, and notified officials. “We believed at the time that the leak was trapped on our property,” said Holycross.

Further investigation, however, uncovered the finding of the major fuel leak on Friday, he said, “We are addressing the matter urgently. Holycross said the company is” serious about our responsibilities as corporate citizens and protecting the environment “and with city, state and federal agencies worked together to address the situation.

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans declared an emergency Wednesday night. Governor Gretchen Whitmer followed suit Thursday night and declared a state of emergency for Flat Rock and Wayne and Monroe counties.

The statement from Whitmer’s office and its order stated that investigators found “high levels of an unknown gas” that “could be explosive”.

Rick Konopka, 56, speaks about the gasoline smell coming from a manhole outside his home on Olmstead Road in Flat Rock on Friday, September 3, 2021.

The situation has no impact on drinking water in the 10,000-inhabitant community in southern Wayne County, the county said in a statement.

Flat Rock Fire Department chief James Katona said “hundreds” of employees have been helping Flat Rock in the past few days, including mutual aid from the Oakland and Monroe authorities.

EPA staff attended the River Heights Academy charter school late Friday morning but declined to discuss their work.

Evans signed the emergency ordinance on Wednesday evening, but a press release announcing it wasn’t sent out until Thursday evening.

Evans spokesman Bill Nowling didn’t want to go directly into why officials waited 24 hours to notify the public of the emergency.

“The timing of the order doesn’t affect the county, state, or federal agency emergency response, all of which were there on Monday,” Nowling said.

Whitmer’s statement, according to a statement, provides state resources in collaboration with local response efforts.

“My top priority is making sure the City of Flat Rock, Wayne County, and Monroe Counties have every resource they can to determine where the odor originated so we can clean up the affected area and prevent further damage,” it says the statement from Whitmer’s office. “I am grateful to the leadership in Flat Rock, Wayne County, Monroe County and all first responders who have kept people safe on the ground.”

Rick Konopka, 56, said he hadn't noticed any gasoline smell from a manhole outside his home on Olmstead Road in Flat Rock until Friday morning.  Flat Rock City workers removed the manhole cover days ago, he said.

Raymond Basham, Wayne County Commissioner, whose Flat Rock district is a part, noted all of the steel, chemicals, and petroleum that has been processed in the area over the decades.

“We are an industrial region,” said the Taylor Democrat. “Whenever there are environmental problems, I worry.”

Rick Konopka, 56, lives across from River Heights Academy. The manhole in his front yard was broken into by work teams days ago. It was still open Friday morning, surrounded by four orange cones and yellow caution tape.

“I don’t smell anything,” said Konopka as he stepped out of his garage. “The crews have tested and worked here, and that’s good for them.”

He planned to go boating on the Detroit River and Lake Erie on Friday.

The front door of the River Heights Academy in Flat Rock is open to ventilate the building on Friday, September 3, 2021 due to a suspected chemical leak in the city's sewers.

He wasn’t worried about the smells, but as he neared the manhole he felt his first hint of anger. It was the only time in the whole week that he had noticed the smell, Konopka said.

Flat Rock residents who smell gasoline smells in their homes should call 734-782-2496, the county said.

People in other communities who smell gasoline should call 911.

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