Six residents of Brighton Township, Mich., filed a lawsuit Thursday against General Motors, alleging decades of sodium chloride groundwater contamination stemming from the automaker's nearby proving ground.
Chemicals released from the facility, the suit says, seeped into water sources that fed into residential areas, damaging homes and causing health problems such as hypertension and kidney stones.
The 22-page document -- which includes accusations of fraud, negligence and environmental protection violations -- accuses GM of concealing, up until 2014, the growing levels of toxins permeating neighboring groundwater reserves that were used to maintain roads and other testing areas at the facility. That year, a report commissioned by the automaker revealed that 18,414 tons of salt had been used at the Milford Proving Ground in the previous six years.
The suit lists four potential causes of the chlorides in the groundwater: road salt used for ice control on paved roads, calcium chloride for dust control on the roads, wastewater effluent and pre-existing salt deposits in the area. However, a study GM contracted in 1985 found most of the chemicals came from road salt the company used for ice control.
The approximately 4,011-acre vehicle testing and development facility, which is located near the border of two counties, is connected to residential areas by a creek that bisects the property diagonally, ultimately flowing into the groundwater and soil around the homes of Brighton Township residents.
Through these channels, the suit charges, toxins "migrated from the MPG into groundwater beneath Plaintiffs' property ... causing extremely high concentrations of sodium and chloride in water used by Plaintiffs."
In seeping into the soil, the chemicals activated previously dormant hazardous substances in and around these neighborhoods, one of which is arsenic, the suit says.
"After receiving the ... study, [GM] did not disclose the Contamination to regulatory authorities or local residents, reduce salt usage, or monitor the groundwater and surface water contamination," the suit said. "Because of its contamination, [GM] discontinued use of it's own existing domestic water supply wells."
A GM spokesman told Automotive News the company does not believe the suit has merit, citing that salt deposits occur naturally in the area and that salt also is used on nearby public roads during winter.
"Nonetheless, acting as a good neighbor, salt usage at the Milford Proving Ground has been reduced by 60 percent over the last two decades and GM submits regular reports on the groundwater quality at the Milford Proving Ground to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality," the spokesman wrote in an email.
When Ellen Moore and her family moved into their home across the street from the proving ground in August 2004, her husband and children refused to drink the tap water that had a "funny smell and terrible taste. " Soon after they moved in, a letter arrived from the county informing residents of high levels of sodium chloride in the water and advising those with severely restricted diets to avoid drinking it.
"I continued to drink the water. I wasn't told not to drink it at that point," Moore said, adding that the Department of Environmental Quality did not notify residents the water was contaminated at dangerous levels until April the following year.
Moore was informed that water had migrated from the proving ground, where massive quantities of salt were scattered on the roads within the complex to test corrosiveness on vehicles. She said up to 95 homes may have been affected.
"Since 2005, we have been hauling water in from our garage to brush our teeth with and to clean our food and to cook with. And that's how we live our lives," Moore said.
Moore was diagnosed with renal stenosis, for which she needed surgical angioplasty to clear blockage to her kidneys, and takes blood pressure medicine.
"We believe that my blood pressure was extremely high because of the sodium chloride intake that I had been ingesting," she said.
In 2010, the State of Michigan began delivering bottled water to the residents. GM released its own statement about potential contamination in 2014, asserting it would provide bottled water to the neighborhood indefinitely.
In addition to health concerns, the groundwater contamination caused extensive damage to the pipes in her home, Moore said, with one kitchen renovation costing upward of $10,000.
Moore and her neighbors are requesting a financial settlement exceeding $25,000 for each party, and for reimbursement of cleanup and repair costs.