The Coast Guard is trying to determine the source of a chemical spill into a channel at the foot of Ontario Street that leads to the Niagara River.
Hazardous materials responders were called to the site Tuesday evening after passers-by reported an unusual odor and a substance on the water, according to Coast Guard Marine Safety Technician Chief Scott Howell.
"It was basically an oily substance, with a rainbow sheen and a swirled-in red color," Howell said. "It didn't appear to be a typical oil spill, like gas or diesel. It appeared to have some kind of paint characteristics."
Capt. Tommy Fitzpatrick of the Buffalo Fire Department's Hazardous Materials Operations Division, said the main component of the spill was xylene, a solvent commonly used in a number of products, including paint and cleaning fluids.
It is a central nervous system depressant and possible reproductive hazard, although there isn't sufficient information to determine whether xylene is carcinogen, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
Fitzpatrick said the chemical was detected in a channel leading to the Niagara River. A sewer overflow and Cornelius Creek, which he said ran mostly under Progressive Avenue, feed the channel, which runs for about 200 to 250 feet.
A contractor hired by the Coast Guard put two containment booms in the water at the mouth of the channel, and both Howell and Fitzpatrick believe little or none of the chemical went into the river.
"You don't get much flow in there unless there are heavy, heavy rains," Fitzpatrick said. "It was just inching along."
Howell said investigators are trying to determine whether the chemical got into the channel by accident or whether it was intentionally dumped. They're also trying to determine where it came from but acknowledged, "It's like finding a needle in a haystack."