Flint, MI— Officials have determined that an ongoing petroleum-based spill in the Flint River is coming from one of three basins on Lockhart Chemical Company’s property in Flint.

“Backtracking up the sewer pipe, we have identified in the last 24 hours, three potential basins that could have a breach,” Sheriff Chris Swanson, who is leading the spill’s emergency response team, told Flint Beat. “So what we’re going to do is water test each basin, and then whichever of the three basins’ water level starts dropping, that’s where the breach is.”

The update comes on the heels of Genesee County’s Medical Health Officer, Dr. Pamela Hackert, issuing an amended health order regarding the discovery of an “oil-like substance” spill in the Flint River on June 15.

Hackert’s order, released June 27, notes that the spill has been contained to the area between Stepping Stone Falls and Leith Street, and asks that residents and visitors “not have direct contact or participate in any sports or fishing” until more information is available or an all-clear is issued.

While Swanson did not say an all-clear is imminent, nearing the identification of the spill’s source is a major step in the emergency response efforts.

“We’re doing the water test today,” Swanson said of the response team’s timeline, adding that “we” meant the Environmental Protection Agency and the many other partners involved in the river’s clean-up effort, like the State of Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) and Flint-based Young’s Environmental Cleanup.

While the search for the outfall continues, Lockhart Chemical Company was identified as the source of the oil-like substance last week through “chemical fingerprinting” analysis, which matched samples of the substance from the river to samples from the metalworking additive manufacturer’s site.

Lockhart did not provide comment to Flint Beat. However, in a press release issued last week, EGLE noted the company “has agreed to accept responsibility” for the spill.

“Lockhart is required to undertake and fund clean-up and remedial actions,” read the press release.

A final cost has yet to be shared for the spill’s containment and clean-up efforts, but Swanson estimated the total is already “well over the seven-figure mark.”

In the meantime, other businesses that operate on the Flint River have been in a holding pattern.

Absorbent boom placed at storm water outfall in Flint River in Flint, Mich. (Photo courtesy Environmental Protection Agency)

Sarah Scheitler, Corridor Alliance Manager for the Flint River Watershed Coalition and Site Manager for Kayak Flint said she and her team have ceased kayak rentals since the spill was discovered in mid-June.

“We are having discussions currently as to whether we will be open this weekend,” Scheitler said in response to the new health order. “It’s looking like we probably will: we just want to get some confirmation that it’s going to be safe for our participants and our staff because they do often contact the water when they’re launching folks.”

Scheitler said that while they await more certainty, FRWC and Kayak Flint have been encouraging residents to kayak upstream of Stepping Stone Falls or visit other local bodies of water like Mott Lake and Holloway Reservoir.

“We are going to also start hosting guided paddles here soon,” Sheitler said. “Probably on some of the local lakes and upstream structures, as well, just to ensure that the cleanup is complete (before returning to normal operations).”

EGLE spokesperson Jill Greenberg said the organization is still working to identify what the petroleum-based substance in the Flint River actually is and hopes to have that information as soon as this week.

In the meantime, Greenberg deferred to Genesee County’s Medical Health office for best practices in engaging with the outfall area of the river, and Swanson noted the emergency response team is already doing testing on the Flint River’s aquatic life.

Swanson said they plan to release that data through the health department, and amend any health orders accordingly, as that data becomes available.

Kate is Flint Beat's associate editor. She joined the team as a corps member of Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues....