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"They lied to us" about contaminated groundwater, say residents near Ford's Livonia plant

Tracy Samilton
Michigan Radio

Two years ago, residents of Alden Village, a small subdivision directly east of Ford Motor Company's Livonia Transmission, got a letter from the automaker.

It was not good news.

A plume of groundwater contaminated with vinyl chloride and trichlorethylene - both known carcinogens - had moved off plant property, and was now underneath about two-thirds of the roughly 110 homes in the neighborhood.

Ford tells residents their health is not at risk

Ford scheduled an informational meeting shortly afterwards, and Monica O'Connor went.  Her home is just 700 feet from the boundary of the plant. 

"It was a dog and pony show," she says.  "We show up, they had charts and graphs and people talking and it was all very well prepared to impress.  Their biggest impression they wanted to make was that there was not any contamination in our drinking water."

That is certainly inarguable. Livonia gets its drinking water from Detroit, just as most metro Detroit communities do.

Bruce Tenniswood, a retired deputy fire chief, says it was obvious Ford was using the drinking water talking point as a red herring.

"I understand how vinyl chloride works," he says. 

The real danger is vapor intrusion

Vinyl chloride is an extremely volatile substance.  It releases as a gas in air pockets in the soil.  If the contaminated groundwater is very shallow, as it is in Alden Village, vapor can get into homes and be inhaled.

"It doesn't take much to get in your house," says Tenniswood.  "My basement is sand.  I can go in my basement and dig with my hands and hit groundwater.  That's how shallow it is in the neighborhood.  And it can get into your house through a crack in the foundation thinner than a human hair."

The two neighbors take me on a drive through Alden Village.  It's easy to forget that it's a stone's throw from heavy industry.  The homes and yards are attractive and well-kept.  Mature trees block the view of the massive transmission plant.

Credit Tracy Samilton / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Ford Motor Company Livonia Transmission Plant

"There's one there," Tenniswood points at what looks like a miniature manhole cover in someone's yard.  "There's another one there."

The inocuous-looking covers are the groundwater and soil vapor testing wells that Ford has installed throughout Alden Village.  One of them is in the yard of a house that is half-way through a renovation.

Damage to property values already apparent

"That buyer is suing the former owner," says O'Connor.  That's because the seller didn't disclose the vinyl chloride contamination in the groundwater.  "He doesn't want to finish working on the house.  He has two young kids.  He doesn't want them living in it."

Credit Tracy Samilton / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
A groundwater test well in Alden Village, Livonia

Another house at the end of the subdivision has a for sale sign in front.  "It's been on the market for a really long time," says Tenniswood.  "You can't sell these houses now.  You have to disclose the contamination, and after that, the (potential) buyers lose interest."

Ford and the MDEQ stop citizen lawsuit in its tracks

O'Connor says Ford people at the informational meeting said they were just now learning about the contamination.  That turned out to be untrue.  The automaker has known since at least 1994 that the groundwater under the plant was heavily contaminated.  Ford appears to have notified federal authorities, but not state authorities.

"None of the government agencies did anything with this, until we said we were gonna file a lawsuit.  They  sat on it for - 25 years," Tenniswood says.

The residents decided to sue in federal court for a cleanup under a law that requires citizens to give state environmental regulatory agencies and the polluter 60 days advance notice.

Ford cut a deal with the Michigan Department of Quality just days before the lawsuit could be filed.  They filed a consent agreement the same day.  That deal means residents can't sue to get a cleanup to their liking, because the MDEQ has taken over. 

What's being done? Not much, say residents

Since the consent agreement was filed, progress has been extremely slow, from the point of view of the residents. Ford has installed a pipe at the boundary of the tranmission plant property, which pumps groundwater and treats it.  But the treatment system appears to be having no effect on levels of contaminants in the groundwater underneath people's homes.

Tenniswood says if the MDEQ was truly concerned about people's health, "Ford should be ordered to install vapor mitigation systems on every single house in this neighborhood, immediately."

Accusation of a  "sweetheart" deal between MDEQ and Ford

The residents' attorney, Shawn Collins, filed a lawsuit in state court for damage to property values only, after the consent agreement cut off other legal avenues of redress.

He agrees with Tenniswood that the consent agreement was a sweetheart deal.  There was zero penalty for Ford's failure to notify the state 25 years ago about the contamination under its plant.

Ford also got the MDEQ to acquiesce to dramatically increasing screening levels in Alden Village, modifying the terms of the original consent agreement. That means Ford can claim "non-detect" when there's actually vinyl chloride present.

Collins says Ford is also fighting to keep thousands of documents under court seal so the public will never see them.

"Ford claims to be a company of environmental transparency and virtue, and at least where this situation is concerned, that's absolute baloney," he says.

Ball is in MDEQ's court to prove residents will be protected

Paul Owens is with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

"Yeah, we got the feeling that there's a lack of trust," he says.  "We realize we have to earn their trust, and we have to earn it every day.  And the way we do that is we work hard at this, and to make sure that this thing gets done, and this thing gets done right."

Owens denies the MDEQ took over to help Ford limit the cleanup costs.  He says the agency won't let the company off the hook until residents are satisfied with the cleanup.  A full remediation - if it is ordered - will take decades.

Ford Motor Company declined to be interviewed for this story.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.