EPA investigates source of oil spill in Clinton River

By: Mary Beth Almond | Rochester Post | Published June 3, 2015


Officials from the Environmental Protection Agency say a small-scale hazardous material spill into the Clinton River Monday is nearly cleaned up.

“We think the spill is over,” EPA on-scene coordinator Jeff Lippert said. “I’m 99 percent confident.”

An unhealthy sheen that covered a nearly five-mile stretch of the Clinton River, from downtown Pontiac to the Oakland-Macomb border, was first reported in Auburn Hills at approximately 3 p.m. June 1.

Lippert said crews were called to the scene and performed air monitoring tests, and deployed absorbent booms — which float on top of the water and absorb hydrocarbons — and collection booms — which corral oil on top and allow clean water to flow through — along the river, near Opdyke Road, in an attempt to remove the material and contain the spill. The Shelby Township Fire Department also utilized containment equipment as a precautionary measure.

The following day, the EPA worked with the Oakland County Water Resources Commission to investigate how the oil entered the waterway, and the Oakland County Health Department issued a public health advisory urging recreation enthusiasts not to use the river in the communities affected by the spill, from Pontiac to the Oakland-Macomb border in Rochester Hills, until the EPA wrapped up its investigation and cleanup efforts.

“The spill is complete,” Lippert said June 3. “We’re not seeing anything else, so it’s just a matter of time before they lift that.”
Although the oil’s entry point has been narrowed down to the area between Martin Luther King Boulevard and Opdyke Road, officials are unsure of the source of the spill.

“We were unsuccessful. We didn’t find it in any of the storm sewers, and we didn’t find where it was coming from on the river,” Lippert explained. “By 4 p.m. it had flowed to almost a trickle, and by 5 p.m. we weren’t seeing any sheen at all.”

He noted that the EPA did leave booms in the water as a precautionary measure, which he expected to be removed by the end of the day June 4.

Initially, the EPA estimated that as many as 1,200 gallons of oil could have been deposited in the river, but Lippert said the actual number is likely closer to 500 gallons. He said the spill is “relatively small” in comparison to others he’s handled.

“If there is a good thing about light oil spills, they float on top and leave the rest of the water relatively unaffected, so we don’t normally see fish kills with oil spills, unless they are really, really large. You could get birds or anything landing in there, but we didn’t see any affected wildlife,” he explained.

Although the EPA may be unable to determine how the oil entered the waterway, Lippert said further testing — the results of which he expects to get back in a couple of weeks — could reveal what type of oil was in the river, and that possibly could be used to determine a source.

“At this time it looks like it was a one-time incident. It could have been somebody dumping something. It could have been an accident. It could have been anything, but we are pretty confident that the spill is over,” he said. “We’re hopeful that we do find something. But it is going to be kind of tough at this point.”

Michele Arquette-Palermo, program director of the Clinton River Watershed Council — a nonprofit environmental protection organization that oversees the Clinton River, its watershed and Lake St. Clair — said she felt fortunate that the Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner's Office, the city of Rochester Hills and the EPA kept the council informed of what was going on.

She said the incident is something that everyone needs to be conscious of.

“Our rivers, lakes and streams belong to everyone in the great state of Michigan and, of course, on the planet, and it’s up to us to take care of them. It’s also up to us to be that watchful eye,” she said. “The EPA, the DEQ and our local governments can’t take care of issues if they are not aware of them … so the community watchdog is an important aspect.”

Arquette-Palermo encourages anyone who sees something in the river they suspect could be an issue to call the Oakland County Pollution Hotline at (248) 858-0931.