Source of Bubbly Creek Oil Spill Likely to Remain a Mystery

Workers from the Environmental Protection Agency respond to an oil spill Oct. 26 at a fork of the Chicago River known as Bubbly Creek. (EPA) Workers from the Environmental Protection Agency respond to an oil spill Oct. 26 at a fork of the Chicago River known as Bubbly Creek. (EPA)

The source of a late October spill that dumped hundreds of gallons of oil into the Chicago River is likely to remain a mystery.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency responded Oct. 26 to a reported oil discharge along a 1.5-mile section of the South Branch of the Chicago River known as Bubbly Creek.

Because the spill occurred several days before the EPA was notified, the agency has been unable to determine the source. (As spilled material dissipates it becomes harder to track its origins, said Margaret Frisbie, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River.) On Tuesday, the EPA said it likely won't be able to identify the source because of the reporting delay.

“It will be difficult to identify the source of the spill,” an EPA spokesperson told Chicago Tonight in an email. “The spill was reported to EPA through the National Response Center a few days after the release and therefore the origin of the spill and the time are unknown.”

According to the EPA, the discharged product was identified by the U.S. Coast Guard as “a slightly-weathered low-sulfur diesel mixed with lubricating oil.” Frisbie said this type of oil is very common and could have been dumped from land or from a vessel on the water. 

Containment booms set up by the EPA limit the spread of oil in the Chicago River following a spill reported on Oct. 26. (EPA)Containment booms set up by the EPA limit the spread of oil in the Chicago River following a spill reported on Oct. 26. (EPA)

As of late Tuesday, the EPA said it had completed oil recovery at Bubbly Creek but was still removing containment booms and residual oil and decontaminating boats and equipment.

The agency said cleanup activities would continue until Thursday. Restrictions on boat access to Bubbly Creek, which have been in place since Oct. 26, are expected to be lifted by the U.S. Coast Guard on Friday, the EPA said.

Federal wildlife officials responding to the spill recovered dead wildlife from the water, including 43 fish, four turtles, one Canada goose and one seagull, according to the EPA.

In addition to the dead wildlife, staff from the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services and the EPA recovered one oiled Canada goose and two turtles, which were transferred to the Flint Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Barrington for care and recovery.

On Tuesday, the agency said that the goose and one of the turtles were doing well and would be released back into the wild. The other turtle has an infection and a wounded leg and could require surgery. The turtle will not be released into the wild but instead will be shown to visitors and kids, the EPA said. 

“Anything is bad, whether it’s small or a large amount [of oil],” Frisbie said about the spill. “Clearly in this case there was a loss of wildlife and other effects, but fortunately the EPA was able to contain it pretty quickly.”

Frisbie said those who observe a discharge of oil or other pollutants into the river should immediately call the EPA's National Response Center at 1-800-424-8802 or the city of Chicago's call center at 311.

Note: This story was originally published Nov. 8 and has been updated.

Contact Alex Ruppenthal: @arupp aruppenthal@wttw.com | (773) 509-5623


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