Ford Motor Co. continues issuing apologies for a fuel leak that appears to have come from the company’s Flat Rock Assembly Plant, but the automaker says that is not enough and willmake things right with families whose lives have been disrupted.
The company has decided to halt Mustang production at the plant this week, and is helpinglocal residents who voluntarily have evacuated the area, including Ford employees, T.R. Reid, Ford spokesman, told the Free Press.
“We’re not going to prioritize building vehicles this week,” he said. “There are higher priorities right now.”
A worker told the Free Press late Monday he received a robocall on Labor Day with the alert saying hourly workers would return Monday.
After an initial investigation determined that a fuel spill at the plant leaked benzene-containing vapors into the sanitary sewer systems last week, states of emergency were announced for both Wayne and Monroe counties. Benzene is a highly flammable, colorless chemical.
Safety concerns led to an emergency evacuation recommendation from city and state officials that left some residents confused.
‘Pretty significant’ demands
The Dearborn automaker is addressing the underlying issue that led to the gas leak identified by the company Wednesday and reported to state health officials, Reid said. In addition, “the demands of the neighbors are pretty significant. We’re planning a pretty deliberate and committed role in addressing those needs,” he said.
The gas leak also has directly affected employees inside and outside the factory.
“Some of our own people are in the affected areas and so they’re away from their homes,” he said, voicing concern about the impact on schooling, ability to focus on work and other commitments.
While vehicle production is temporarily stopped, a skeleton crew of the estimated 1,900 employees remains on site to coordinate with local, state and federal officials day-by-day to find answers to questions as well as do ongoing maintenance.
The Ford worker who clocked in over the weekend at the factory, which was mostly down for the holiday, told the Free Press that bathrooms were shut down and portable bathrooms had been brought in for employee use. The worker did not want to be identified because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media.
‘The air is safe’
When asked about bathroom changes, Reid replied, “The original concern was there was gasoline going from our sanitary sewer lines into the city’s sanitary sewer network. The sanitary sewer lines would have implications for restrooms.”
There is no safety issue in the plant at this time, he said.
“We’re doing air monitoring and have been. The air is safe,” he said, noting that Ford is looking to identify the root cause of the problem and “doing remediation.”
Initially, Ford thought it had a “relatively small leak” in a pipe that carried gasoline used to fuel vehicles built at the plant, and the company shut down the fuel pipe and called experts to remove the gas and notify public officials, said Bob Holycross, vice president of sustainability, environment and safety engineering for Ford, in a statement Friday.
As it turned out, the situation involved 1,000 to 3,000 gallons of gasoline.
Trying to understand what happened
Now Ford is working not only to fix the current problem, but to figure out what happened to the fuel line so a similar crisis doesn’t occur in other factory locations.
“We’re still trying to understand why” the leak happened, Reid said late Monday.
The whole process in recent days involves sharing what’s learned with Ford factories worldwide as a precaution.
“This isn’t being treated as an anomaly. We hope it is. But you have to take what you learn and apply it everyplace,” Reid said.
$1 million to Flat Rock
Meanwhile, Ford has worked with the City of Flat Rock to identify and secure “hundreds” of hotel rooms all around the immediate area, Reid said. “People are displaced from their homes and they need someplace safe and comfortable to go.”
Ford is covering hotel costs, meals, and personal items with gift cards and the company also tried to make arrangements for social and recreational activity for the families, Reid said. A million-dollar commitment from Ford will be administered by the Flat Rock Community Fund to benefit residents affected, he said.
“Details haven’t all been worked out about what it might cover and how it will be provided. The city will administer it,” Reid said. “We apologized for this but that’s inadequate. People are being affected. Lives are being disrupted and we’ve got an obligation to try and help. We’ve got volunteers from different parts of Ford that have been out with other folks, marshaled by the city, knocking on doors, getting information out to people.”
Ford could safely run the factory now “but that’s not the priority,” Reid said. “We are working hard but appropriately. I’m not implying the company should be getting credit. We’re doing what we think is right.”
When it comes to actions at the factory, everything is prescribed by environmental and health regulations. Every agency is following protocol carefully, Reid said.
“We’ve got daily meetings and guidance and support. … Our people are trying to anticipate needs and an awful lot of folks are working on things where they don’t have expertise but they’re figuring it out as they go. We’ve got marketing people working on hotels and meal cards. There’s a lot of people pitching in. We’re doing that because we’re the source of the problem,” he said.
Experts from federal, state and local environmental and health agencies continue to work to neutralize the threat.
WWJ-AM (950) tweeted photos of two men checking air quality at Flat Rock High School early Tuesday “before opening for the school year” amid “evacuation of about 1,100 homes southeast of the downtown.”