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Reporting Oil Spills: Everything You Need To Know

Oil Spills: Everything You Need To Know

Understanding Oil Spills

This 1993 pdf document contains sections that outline what oil spills are, their potential effects on the environment, how they are cleaned up, and how various agencies prepare for spills before they happen. An in-depth look at the Exxon Valdez spill of March 1989 exemplifies the complexities that can potentially be involved in oil spill cleanup activities. Note that the .pdf file does not include photos found in the bound version.

How to Report

Reporting a hazardous substance release or oil spill takes only a few minutes. To report a release or spill, contact the federal government's centralized reporting center, the National Response Center (NRC), at 1-800-424-8802. The NRC is staffed 24 hours a day by U.S. Coast Guard personnel, who will ask you to provide as much information about the incident as possible. If possible, you should be ready to report the following:

  • Your name, location, organization, and telephone number
  • Name and address of the party responsible for the incident
  • Date and time of the incident
  • Location of the incident
  • Source and cause of the release or spill
  • Types of material(s) released or spilled
  • Quantity of materials released or spilled
  • Danger or threat posed by the release or spill
  • Number and types of injuries (if any)
  • Weather conditions at the incident location
  • Any other information that may help emergency personnel respond to the incident

If reporting directly to the NRC is not possible, reports also can be made to the EPA Regional office or the U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety Office in the area where the incident occurred. In general, EPA should be contacted if the incident involves a release to inland areas or inland waters, and the U.S. Coast Guard should be contacted for releases to coastal waters, the Great Lakes, ports and harbors, or the Mississippi River. The EPA or U.S. Coast Guard will relay release and spill reports to the NRC promptly.

EPA maintains the oil spill program information line to answer questions and provide information on the following topicsto the public and owners/operators of regulated facilities:

Calls to the information line are received by a voicemail system that is monitored daily by contractor personnel. You may also submit inquiries via email. Inquiries are answered within several business days. Oil spill program materials and copies of various rulemakings are made available to callers upon request. Questions involving government policy are forwarded to EPA personnel who make determinations and respond as quickly as possible.

EPA Oil Spill Program Contacts

If you need contact information for a specific person in the EPA Oil Spill Program, you can search for his or her contact information in the EPA Employee Directory.

How Reports Are Handled

All reports of hazardous substance releases and oil spills made to the federal government are maintained by the National Response Center or NRC. The NRC records and maintains all reports in a computer database called the Emergency Response Notification System, which is available to the public. The NRC relays the release information to an EPA or U.S. Coast Guard On Scene Coordinator (OSC), depending on the location of the incident. In every area of the country, OSCs are on-call and ready to respond to an oil or hazardous substance release at any time of the day. After receiving a report of an oil or hazardous substance release, the federal OSC evaluates the situation and, if the OSC decides that a federal emergency response action is necessary, the National Response System will be activated. Otherwise, the OSC will monitor the clean up activities of the responsible party and the local and state governments, and will assist in the clean up as warranted.

This link provides an overview of the National Response Center.

Follow this link to visit the National Response Center Web Site .

For information on EPA's Oil Spill Program, call the Oil Spill Program Information Line (800)424-9346 or request information via email

Overview of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990

The Oil Pollution Act (OPA) was signed into law in August 1990, largely in response to rising public concern following the Exxon Valdez incident. The OPA improved the nation's ability to prevent and respond to oil spills by establishing provisions that expand the federal government's ability, and provide the money and people necessary, to respond to oil spills. The OPA also created the national Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, which is available to provide up to one billion dollars per spill incident.

In addition, the OPA provided new requirements for contingency planning both by government and industry. The National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan (NCP) has been expanded in a three-tiered approach: the Federal government is required to direct all public and private response efforts for certain types of spill events; Area Committees -- composed of federal, state, and local government officials -- must develop detailed, location-specific Area Contingency Plans; and owners or operators of vessels and certain facilities that pose a serious threat to the environment must prepare their own facility response plans.

Finally, the OPA increased penalties for regulatory noncompliance, broadened the response and enforcement authorities of the Federal government, and preserved State authority to establish law governing oil spill prevention and response.

In 1973, EPA issued the Oil Pollution Prevention regulation, which is codified at 40 CFR Part 112, to address the oil spill prevention provisions contained in the Clean Water Act of 1972. The regulation forms the basis of EPA's oil spill prevention, control, and countermeasures, or SPCC, program, which seeks to prevent oil spills from certain aboveground and underground storage tanks. In particular, the regulation applies to non-transportation-related facilities that:

  • Have an aboveground storage capacity of more than 660 gallons in a single tank, an aggregate aboveground storage capacity of more than 1,320 gallons, or a total underground storage capacity of 42,000 gallons; and
  • Could reasonably be expected to discharge oil in harmful quantities into navigable waters of the United States.

The regulation requires each owner or operator of a regulated facility to prepare an SPCC Plan. The Plan is required to address the facility's design, operation, and maintenance procedures established to prevent spills from occurring, as well as countermeasures to control, contain, clean up, and mitigate the effects of an oil spill that could affect navigable waters.

Following the massive Ashland oil spill in 1988, EPA formed the SPCC Task Force to examine federal regulations governing oil spills from aboveground storage tanks. The SPCC Task Force recommended that EPA clarify certain provisions in the Oil Pollution Prevention regulation, establish additional technical requirements for regulated facilities, and require the preparation of facility-specific response plans. In 1990, Congress enacted the Oil Pollution Act which, among other things, required certain oil storage facilities to prepare facility response plans.

In response, EPA proposed revisions to the Oil Pollution Prevention regulation in two phases. EPA proposed its first set of revisions to the regulation on October 22, 1991. These proposed revisions, in addition to strengthening and clarifying previous regulatory language, outline the additional requirements for regulated oil storage and handling facilities. On July 1, 1994, EPA finalized a second set of revisions to the Oil Pollution Prevention regulations. The revisions incorporate the new requirements added by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 that direct facility owners or operators to prepare, and in some cases submit to the federal government, plans for responding to a worst-case discharge of oil.

Discharge of Oil Regulation (40 CFR 110)

Under the legal authority of the Clean Water Act, the Discharge of Oil regulation, more commonly known as the "sheen rule", provides the framework for determining whether an oil spill to inland and coastal waters and/or their adjoining shorelines should be reported to the federal government. In particular, the regulation requires the person in charge of a facility or vessel responsible for discharging oil that may be "harmful to the public health or welfare" to report the spill to the federal government. The regulation establishes the criteria for determining whether an oil spill may be harmful to public health or welfare, thereby triggering the reporting requirements, as follows:

  • Discharges that cause a sheen or discoloration on the surface of a body of water;
  • Discharges that violate applicable water quality standards; and
  • Discharges that cause a sludge or emulsion to be deposited beneath the surface of the water or on adjoining shorelines.

Because the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which amended the Clean Water Act, broadly defines the term "oil," the sheen rule applies to both petroleum and non-petroleum oils (e.g., vegetable oil). The regulation also provides several exemptions from the notification requirements.

Oil Spill Reporting Exemptions

Properly Functioning Vessel Engines

Discharges of oil from a properly functioning vessel engine are not deemed to be harmful and, therefore, do not need to be reported under the Discharge of Oil regulation. However, oil accumulated in a vessel's bilge is not exempt.

Research and Development Releases

The EPA Administrator may permit the discharge of oil on a case-by-case basis in connection with research, demonstration projects, or studies relating to the prevention, control, or abatement of oil pollution. However, the Discharge of Oil regulation specifically forbids the use of dispersants or emulsifiers to circumvent the discharge regulations.

NPDES-Permitted Releases

Three types of discharges subject to the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System are exempt from oil spill reporting:

  • Discharges in compliance with a permit under Section 402 of the Clean Water Act, when the permit contains either an effluent limitation specifically applicable to oil or an effluent limitation applicable to another parameter that has been designated as an indicator of oil;
  • Discharges resulting from circumstances identified and reviewed and made part of the public record with respect to a permit issued or modified under Section 402 of the Clean Water Act, and subject to a condition in such permit. This exclusion addresses situations where the source, nature, and amount of a potential oil discharge was identified, and a treatment system capable of preventing that discharge was made a permit requirement. For example, if a discharger has a drainage system that will route spilled oil from a broken hose connection to a holding tank for subsequent treatment and discharge, the treatment system must be sufficient to handle the maximum potential spill from that source. Spills larger than those contemplated in the public record are not exempted; and
  • Continuous or anticipated intermittent discharges from a point source, identified in a permit or permit application under Section 402 of the Clean Water Act, which are caused by events occurring within the scope of relevant operating or treatment systems. This exclusion applies to chronic or anticipated intermittent discharges originating in the manufacturing or treatment systems of a facility or vessel, including those caused by periodic system failures. Discharges caused by spills or episodic events that release oil to the manufacturing or treatment systems are not exempt from reporting.

Discharges Permitted Under MARPOL

Certain discharges beyond the territorial seas (i.e., defined as extending three miles seaward from the coast) are allowed if they are permitted under international law. The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), as amended, prohibits the discharge of oily mixtures (defined as mixtures with any oil content) from a tanker except when all of the following conditions are met: the tanker is proceeding en route; the tanker is more than 50 miles from the nearest land; the instantaneous rate of discharge does not exceed 60 liters per mile; and the total quantity of oil discharged in any ballast voyage does not exceed 1/15,000 of the total cargo carrying capacity. In addition, MARPOL allows discharges in quantities verified by a monitoring system to be less than or equal to 15 ppm, regardless of whether the discharge causes a sheen. Therefore, discharges permitted under MARPOL into waters seaward of the territorial sea are exempt from U.S. oil spill notification requirements; such discharges may include the operational discharge of limited quantities of oil-water mixtures from ships.

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