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Flat Rock town hall leaves some residents frustrated

State of Michigan

An online forum to update Flat Rock residents on what’s being done about a gasoline leak getting into the sewers left many frustrated.

Comments during the live Facebook town hall showed people were frustrated and skeptical of the federal, state, and local experts’ answers about the details of how gasoline from the Ford Flat Rock Assembly Plant leaked into the city's sewers.

Kory Groetsch is the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) Environmental Public Health Director for the Division of Environmental Health. He oversees response efforts for lead, vapor intrusion, drinking water, PFAS, and other  contamination.

He said testing for hazardous vapors in all 1,100 homes begins soon. The U.S. Environmental Protection agency has brought in a Trace Atmospheric Gas Analyzer (TAGA), a self-contained mobile laboratory which is capable of real-time sampling of air. It will take between 30 and 50 minutes to take samples at each home.

Prior to the TAGA unit’s arrival, tests were taken by hand-held units or by canisters that sample air for a 24-hour period. Those samples have to be sent to a lab for analysis and that can take days.

Credit USEPA
An archive photo of a Trace Atmospheric Gas Analyzer (TAGA). A similar unit will be used in Flat Rock to sample air.

“I know everybody just, you know, (are saying) 'Kory, just give me a date. When are you going to get this done?' I totally get it. But, we’re not going to guess. We need the results and we need your help to get into the houses where we need the data,” Groetsch said.

Officials will be contacting evacuated homeowners to schedule tests in houses soon. But Groetsch stressed this process will take time. 

It will likely be weeks, not days, before testing is complete.

“We’re going to focus on those areas where there were detections in homes, you know, the evacuated homes. As I said, a lot of that is in Zone 1,” Groetsch said, referring to an area identified as having high levels of benzene vapors.

Zone 2, a smaller area to the west, is less likely to have high levels of benzene and will be tested afterward.

Residents are confused about the priorities because people in both zones were offered hotel vouchers and food gift cards by Ford if they evacuated. The MDHHS says Zone 1 was the only area recommended to evacuate. Zone 2 residents were give the option to evacuate out of “an abundance of caution.”

Others wanted to know why a school between the two zones was not a testing priority, and the experts’ explanations did not seem to calm fears that children could be exposed to vapors which potentially include benzene, a known carcinogen.

One resident wanted health officials to start taking blood samples of residents to determine if benzene was present.

Some residents complained that not everyone received gift cards for food that were made available by Ford. Others say they were told by hotels that they would have to leave by Sunday.

Officials said the vouchers are good for as long as needed.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Screen shot of Ford's Bob Holycross during the online town hall held for Flat Rock.

Ford Motor Company’s Vice President, Sustainability, Environment and Safety Engineering Bob Holycross assured Flat Rock residents that the company will distribute more gift cards to evacuated families and that it is covering hotel costs for as long as necessary. He added he’s working with Flat Rock Mayor Mark Hammond to reimburse evacuated residents who are staying other places which cause additional financial burdens, but they’ve not yet come up with a specific plan.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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