What to Do in the Event of a Petroleum Spill

Although petroleum has been an extremely useful and powerful global resource since the early 20th century, it has also been the cause of great losses to the environment. An accidental petroleum spill can cause severe short-term effects, like the endangerment and destruction of plants and wildlife, as well as tragic long-term impacts, like the devastation of ecosystems and animal habitats, in addition to posing safety risks to the general public. In the Midwest region, petroleum spills typically occur from pipelines, overturned semi tanker trucks, railroad tanker cars, bulk petroleum storage facilities, or retail fueling stations. To limit the damage to the environment and to comply with state and EPA regulations, today we’re discussing what to do in the event of a petroleum spill.

What to Do in the Event of a Petroleum Spill


What to Do in the Event of a Petroleum Spill

Have a Spill Prevention Controls & Countermeasures (SPCC) Plan or Facility Response Plan (FRP). If a facility stores more than 1320 total gallons of petroleum in above ground storage tanks (including all containers 55 gallons and larger), the EPA requires that facility to have and maintain a SPCC Plan. If a facility stores either a) 42,000 gallons of petroleum and may transport over water, or b) 1 million gallons or more of petroleum, they may be required to have a Facility Response Plan (FRP) under the Clean Water Act (which was amended by the Oil Pollution Act). This plan will convey what the facility will do in the event of an oil spill, and it demonstrates to the EPA that they are prepared for such an event. These plans also require regular inspections of the storage containers and training for facility personnel. This should be completed before an oil spill ever occurs.

Report the Spill. If you, your facility, or your organization is responsible for a petroleum spill, you must notify the state or federal government if it reaches a specified limit. State reporting limits vary; however, generally if the release is 25+ gallons from an underground storage tank, or 50+ gallons from an above ground tank, semi-truck, railcar, or pipeline, the spill must be reported to your state’s emergency response hotline. Be aware of your state’s laws for specific reporting amounts. If the spill reaches “navigable waters or adjacent shorelines”, the National Response Center (call 800-424-8802) must be notified; if the spill is 1,000 gallons or more, it must also be reported the EPA Regional Office for that area. It should be noted that many roadside ditches lead to navigable waters and could be considered adjacent.

According to the EPA, petroleum spills that may harm public health have one or all of the following characteristics:

  • They violate “applicable water quality standards.”
  • They cause discoloration of the water or shorelines, also referred to as a film or sheen. The “sheen rule” requires oil spill reporting if there is a visible sheen on the water created by the petroleum.
  • They “cause a slug or emulsion to be deposited beneath the surface of the water or upon adjoining shorelines.”

Some oil spills are exempt from reporting, but they should still be properly contained and cleaned up to prevent further damage to the environment.

If you are working near a facility that stores petroleum and find indications that a spill may have occurred, such as a sheen in a ditch or nearby water body, petroleum odors in a utility access, or petroleum-like odors while digging, you should contact your state’s emergency response hotline so the suspected release can be investigated further to determine if a reportable spill has occurred.

Comply with the State or EPA Emergency Response Program. After you have notified the government, you will need to follow their directions with speed and efficiency. You will also want a skilled environmental emergency response team onsite with the necessary equipment and manpower to contain & clean up the spill. The spill site will be investigated by the state and/or federal responder working in conjunction with the emergency response team to determine the extent of the release and decide what to do next. Their solution may include:

  • Mechanical containment, which can capture and store the petroleum
  • Dispersing and gelling agents, to prevent the petroleum from reaching sensitive areas
  • Biological agents, to assist recovery in sensitive areas
  • Physical methods, such as wiping with sorbent materials, pressure washing, raking, and bulldozing
  • Scare tactics, used to keep away at-risk birds and animals

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Are you wondering what to do in the event of a petroleum spill? Contact Environmental Works, a full-service environmental consulting and contracting firm. With our many years of experience managing major environmental projects, you can feel comfortable trusting us with the management of a petroleum spill. We offer oil/water separator cleaning services, excavation associated with spills, and quick 24/7 emergency spill response with response teams in Kansas City, Springfield, and Northwest Arkansas. In the event of a spill, contact our 24-Hour Emergency Spill Response Hotline at (877) 827-9500.