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Everything You Need To Know About Spills: Chemical Spills, Oil Spills and More

Emergency - no time to read this?  To report oil and hazardous chemical spills, call the National Response Center 1-800-424-8802


There are four primary Federal statutes that require release reporting including CERCLA , the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986 ( EPCRA ), the Hazardous Material Transportation Act of 1974 ( HMTA ), and the CWA (the Clean Water Act).

In addition, because CERCLA defines hazardous substances to include CWA hazardous substances and toxic pollutants, the Clean Air Act ( CAA ) hazardous air pollutants, the RCRA (Resource Conservation and Recovery Act) hazardous wastes, and the Toxic Substances Control Act ( TSCA ) imminently hazardous chemical substances, releases of these substances are also subject to CERCLA reporting requirements.

Part or all of the information from these reports may be collected in ERNS. The four primary statutes and their resulting regulations, citations, and relationship to ERNS are shown below.

Statute (Cite for Reporting Requirements)

Who Responds?

It depends upon the type and place of the spill.  Examples of Responding Agencies:

How The System Works

First Line of Defense

When a release or spill occurs, the company responsible for the release, its response contractors, the local fire and police departments, and the local emergency response personnel provide the first line of defense. If needed, a variety of state agencies stand ready to support, assist, or take over response operations if an incident is beyond local capabilities. In cases where a local government or Indian tribe conducts temporary emergency measures in response to a hazardous substance release, but does not have emergency response funds budgeted, EPA operates the Local Governments Reimbursement program that will reimburse local governments or Indian tribes up to $25,000 per incident.

This flowchart summarizes the steps.

Federal Involvement

If the amount of a hazardous substance release or oil spill exceeds the established reporting trigger , the organization responsible for the release or spill is required by law to notify the federal government's National Response Center (NRC) . Once a report is made, the NRC immediately notifies a pre-designated EPA or U.S. Coast Guard On-Scene Coordinator (OSC) , based on the location of the spill. The procedure for determining the lead agency is clearly defined so there is no confusion about who is in charge during a response. The OSC determines the status of the local response and monitors the situation to determine whether, or how much, federal involvement is necessary. It is the OSC's job to ensure that the cleanup, whether accomplished by industry, local, state, or federal officials, is appropriate, timely, and minimizes human and environmental damage.

The OSC may determine that the local action is sufficient and that no additional federal action is required. If the incident is large or complex, the federal OSC may remain on the scene to monitor the response and advise on the deployment of personnel and equipment. However, the federal OSC will take command of the response in the following situations:

The OSC may request additional support to respond to a release or spill, such as additional contractors, technical support from EPA's Environmental Response Team , or Scientific Support Coordinators from EPA or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration . The OSC also may seek support from the Regional Response Team to access special expertise or to provide additional logistical support. In addition, the National Response Team stands ready to provide backup policy and logistical support to the OSC and the RRT during an incident.

The federal government will remain involved at the oil spill site following response actions to undertake a number of activities, including assessing damages, supporting restoration efforts, recovering response costs from the parties responsible for the spill, and, if necessary, enforcing the liability and penalty provisions of the Clean Water Act , as amended by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 .

Discharge of Oil Regulation: Summary of Key Provisions

ERNS Fact Sheets

Learn about ERNS, the Emergency Response Notification System, from these informative fact sheets:

Related Information

Risk Management Plans

SARA Title III Fact Sheet: The Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act

Download this brief EPA fact sheet here

Chemicals in Your Community: A Guide to the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act

This page on EHSO is a very thorough guide to the EPCRA program, from overview through implementation!

National Response Team Integrated Contingency Plan

EPA Guidance on the "One Plan" (corrected version).

This page was updated on 18-Apr-2015