Everything You Need To Know About Chemical & Oil Spills

Everything You Need To Know About Spills

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

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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)

  • CERCLA Section 103 (40 CFR Part 302.6, Part 300.405)

    Requires that the release of a CERCLA hazardous substance that meets or exceeds the reportable quantity (RQ) set forth in 40 CFR 302.4 must be reported to the NRC. These substances account for on average 19% of all the notifications in ERNS.

  • EPCRA Section 304 (40 CFR Part 355.40)

    Requires that the release of an RQ or more of an EPCRA extremely hazardous substance or a CERCLA hazardous substance (one pound or more if a reporting trigger is not established by regulation) that results in exposure of people outside the facility boundary be reported to State and local authorities.

  • HMTA Section 1808 (49 CFR Part 171.15)

    Requires that the release of a DOT hazardous material during transportation be reported to the NRC under certain circumstances such as death, injury, significant property damage, evacuation, highway closure, etc.

  • CWA Section 311 (40 CFR Part 110.10, Part 300.300)

    Requires that the release of oil be reported to the NRC if the release: (1) violates applicable water quality standards; (2) causes a film, sheen or discoloration of the water or adjoining shoreline; or (3) causes a sludge or an emulsion to be deposited beneath the surface of the water or upon the adjoining shorelines. Oil notifications account for on average 57% of all notifications in ERNS.

Who Responds?

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

  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
  • United States Coast Guard (USCG)
  • U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT)
  • State Emergency Response Commission (SERC)
  • Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
  • Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC)

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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:

  • If the party responsible for the chemical release or oil spill is unknown or not cooperative;
  • If the OSC determines that the spill or release is beyond the capacity of the company, local, or state responders to manage; or
  • For oil spills, if the incident is determined to present a substantial threat to public health or welfare due to the size or character of the spill.

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.

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Discharge of Oil Regulation: Summary of Key Provisions

  • Section 110.1 Defines oil, discharge, navigable waters, and other terms relevant to oil releases.
  • Section 110.2 Establishes the types of discharges that are subject to this regulation.
  • Section 110.3 Establishes the criteria that determine when an oil discharge into navigable waters is harmful to the public health or welfare.
  • Section 110.4 Establishes the criteria that determine when an oil discharge into the contiguous zone of the U.S. is harmful to the public health or welfare.
  • Section 110.5 Establishes the criteria that determine when an oil discharge into waters beyond the contiguous zone of the U.S. is harmful to the public health or welfare.
  • Section 110.6 Prohibits any person from discharging oil into U.S. waters in an amount that is harmful to the public health or welfare.
  • Section 110.7 Exempts from this rule those discharges from properly functioning vessel engines.
  • Section 110.8 Prohibits the addition of dispersants or emulsifiers to oil which is going to be discharged, if it results in a violation of Part 110.
  • Section 110.9 Authorizes the Administrator of the EPA to allow oil to be discharged for research or demonstration projects related to oil spill prevention or control.
  • Section 110.10 Requires the person in charge of a facility or vessel to report any harmful discharge of oil to the Federal government's National Response Center or other available authority.
  • Section 110.11 Defines the term "discharge" and notes exceptions for vessel engines and discharges permitted under MARPOL.

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ERNS Fact Sheets

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

  • An Overview of ERNS -- This fact sheet contains general ERNS information, such as: reporting requirements for reports contained in ERNS, how spill notifications in ERNS are collected, the number of release reports for three general material types, uses for and limitations of ERNS data, the different data output formats, and a map of EPA Regions and their FOIA offices.
  • ERNS Statistics -- This fact sheet gives examples of one use of ERNS data - statistical analyses of large data sets. The information is presented in tables, pie charts, and a map, and identifies the annual number of CERCLA and petroleum notifications in ERNS for various size categories between 1987 and 1994; the different environmental media affected by reported CERCLA and petroleum spills; and the number of reported spills per state between 1987 and 1994.
  • ERNS and CERCLA -- This fact sheet focuses on reports in ERNS of releases of CERCLA hazardous substances. ERNS and CERCLA discusses: reported causes of CERCLA hazardous substance spills in ERNS, the definition of a CERCLA hazardous substance, the five most frequently reported CERCLA hazardous substances in ERNS from 1987-1993, CERCLA reporting requirements, and what happens to a spill notification after it is received by the NRC.
  • ERNS and Oil -- This fact sheet concentrates on notifications of releases of petroleum and non-petroleum oils in ERNS. Specific information includes: annual number of reports of releases of petroleum and non-petroleum oils between 1987 and 1996; examples of petroleum, non-petroleum, and animal and vegetable oils; reported sources of petroleum and non-petroleum oil spills; and reporting requirements for oil spills.
  • ERNS and Site Searches -- This fact sheet contains information on conducting searches of the ERNS database for a specific location (e.g., street address, county, state), such as: a background on site searches, how to request a site search, how much an ERNS search will cost, and the available formats of the report generated if the search yields any results.
  • ERNS and OPA 90 -- This fact sheet investigates the effect that the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA 90) may have had on the number and size of release notifications in ERNS. The fact sheet discusses: the background of OPA 90, the average number of annual reports of oil spills in ERNS between 1989 and 1995, sources of oil spills to inland and coastal waters, and the average size of reported oil spills in ERNS between 1989 and 1995.

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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

Thispage 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).

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