Oil and Chemical Spills: 10 Questions Answered About the Proper Procedure for Reporting and Cleaning Them

October 19, 2017

Oil & Chemical Spills: 10 Questions answered about the proper procedure for reporting and cleaning themOil spills happen. It is practically inevitable when you consider the sheer number of vessels on Earth traveling by truck, boat and rail carrying some highly flammable and toxic chemical in quantities that range from astoundingly large to relatively small.

Oil and chemical spills result from some factors and often, a combination of them:

  • Weather emergencies and natural phenomena
  • Human error or carelessness
  • Equipmenttex failure
  • Deliberate destruction by sabotage
  • Accidental damage due to a collision
  • Corrosion and eventual failure of a container

It can be daunting to coordinate all the logistic and regulatory requirements, especially in crisis mode, and any business that handles or involves oil and other toxic chemicals should know what kind of chemical or oil it is. Besides what type of material, there will be guidelines on how much of the material causes a problem.

Rather than needing to know all of a sudden how to report a chemical spill, gather resources before an emergency comes along and have a definitive plan for if the worst does happen

A few drops of some chemicals can be deadly while others are only dangerous when concentrated in large quantities. Rather than needing to know all of a sudden how to report a chemical spill, gather resources before an emergency comes along and have a definitive plan for if the worst does happen.

Alexanders Industrial Services fields many questions about oil and chemical spills, as well the correct and thorough cleanup of them. We are glad to share information we’ve accumulated through years of experience. Data can help others prevent oil and chemical spills and leakage, as well as provide a resource to respond swiftly and promptly if something does happen.

  1. Why Worry About an Oil Spill?

Humans, wildlife, plants and other organisms on the land, in the air and under the water are at risk from oil and chemical spills and their adverse effects. Even with a small-scale event, the economy also suffers.

Humans remain susceptible to damage from spilled or leaking oil and chemicals if it reaches any of their delicate senses. Some things on the land can burn or adversely affect the skin, while other things in the air can scorch the lungs and cause respiratory distress. All types of oil are highly flammable and therefore have the potential to explode and burst into flames.

Less immediate but just as serious are the possibilities that the oil or other chemical leaked into the groundwater or contaminated the soil. In both cases, it would hurt human health and will hamper efforts to grow food. Oil in any form or amount will smother plants and put toxins into the soil that will wash down to the groundwater, and possibly to water bodies.

The worst damage from an oil or chemical spill outdoors is usually to wildlife, plants and valuable bacteria.

The worst damage from an oil or chemical spill outdoors is usually to wildlife, plants and valuable bacteria. It is poison to them and may kill off fish, animals, bugs and plants needed to maintain a healthy, local ecosystem.

Plants and animals are also at risk of damage from cleanup efforts. Those may include large, invasive equipment that voids or disrupts delicate habitat, as well as the chemicals used to clean up an oil spill. They soak up the oil, but it’s logical to presume some of its toxins escape into the environment and impact living things.

Everyone has probably seen the sad images of oil sticking to creatures of all kinds, especially ones who travel on the surface of the water where the oil usually sits. The aftermath of the treatment is not as well known.

Spills and leaks can kill off a favorite sports fish, ruin a favorite meeting spot or taint the drinking water. Oil spills can also cause the disappearance or shrinkage of outstanding recreational and scenic areas.

Most people remember or know how businesses in areas stricken by an oil spill suffer in the aftermath. People don’t want to go where there is gooey stuff on the beach or walking trail. In short, oil and chemical spills cost big dollars well beyond the cleanup process.

An example from one Gulf oil spill demonstrates how oil imposed lasting damage. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) analyzes and reports on images taken from space, and it coupled them with data from recent research on the effects of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill resulting from the Deepwater Horizon drilling-rig explosion.

Oil killed and weakened vegetation, which made for less root structure to hold the shoreline together. The result has been a loss of plant and animal life as well as a shoreline with quadruple the erosion rate it had before the spill.

Another study initiated in 2010 will follow the health of workers involved with the response to the Deepwater spill. There is not much data yet on the harmful long-term effects oil exposure has on humans, but the 2010 study concludes in 2020 and may reveal new insight.

  1. What Are the Common Places Where Oil Spills Occur?

We hear and see the coverage of large-scale oil spills in water, but they happen on land and are just as much of a concern there.

Oil and chemical spills are possible at any facility that uses oil. We hear and see the coverage of large-scale oil spills in water, but they happen on land and are just as much of a concern there.

There are multiple, potential sources of an oil spill or leak on land:

  • Pipeline
  • Power station
  • Well
  • Storage tank
  • Railroad car
  • Semi-truck tanker

Incidents include everything from slow, steady, barely detectable leaks to ruptures in tanks that quickly spill a large volume of oil or chemicals.

  1. What Else Besides Oil Is Considered Toxic?

The Environmental Protection Agency gives a list of materials besides oil that is considered hazardous and toxic, as well as the exact amount of the material that constitutes toxicity. The EPA list items are also within the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act (EPRCA).

The gist of the law is that when someone is working with something hazardous, their friends, neighbors and people downstream have a right to know about it. The act also provides for best practices and an effective emergency plan.

This partial list of items gives an idea, but the whole EPA hazardous materials list exceeds 100 pages.

  • Acetone
  • Acetylene
  • Ammonia in all forms
  • Ammonium hydroxide
  • Amphetamine
  • Antimony
  • Arsenic
  • Asbestos
  • Barium
  • Beryllium
  • Cadmium
  • Chlorine
  • Chromium
  • Copper
  • Dioxins
  • Gasoline
  • Formaldehyde
  • Lead
  • Manganese
  • Mercury
  • Nickel
  • Permethrin
  • Propane
  • Radiation
  • Saccharine
  • Salts
  • Selenium
  • Silver
  • Sulfur mono chloride
  • Thallium
  • Urethane
  • Warfarin
  • Zinc

Fuel oils like diesel and gas are considered light and although they have damaging effects and certainly can contaminate groundwater and soil, they evaporate quickly and don't stay in the environment as long as a heavy oil.

Even with oils, the different types have varying characteristics. For example, fuel oils like diesel and gas are considered light. For the most part, they remain on the surface of the water, and although they have damaging effects and certainly can contaminate groundwater and soil, they evaporate quickly and don’t stay in the environment as long as a heavy oil.

A ship’s bunker oil or crude oil are examples of heavy oils that if spilled, would result in sticky globs on land that would stay in the soil and other elements for a long time. When heavy oil gets into water, it sinks and affects all the aquatic life that lives under the surface of the water. While the heavy oils are considered slightly less toxic than light ones, their consistency can be a killer of wildlife because they smother things and stick to bird feathers so they cannot fly.

  1. What Constitutes a Leak or Spill?

The term often used for a leak, spill or another kind of hazardous-discharge activity is release or release event.

How you go about the cleanup of a release event depends upon multiple factors:

  • What type of material spilled
  • How much volume of it there is to manage
  • Where the spill or leak occurred and what surrounds it
  • Accessibility of the spill site
  • Regulatory requirements attached to any of the factors

The Environmental Protection Agency offers copious information about the different types of environmental cleanup, and they help explain what materials are of concern.

The EPA says an emergency response is warranted when spills and hazardous-waste sites pose an "imminent and substantial danger" to human health and the environment.

Emergency response: The EPA says an emergency response is warranted when spills and hazardous-waste sites pose an “imminent and substantial danger” to human health and the environment. These types of situations should be reported right away and prompt an immediate response.

Brownfield cleanup: A brownfield is usually a piece of idle property that in its history released or used harmful materials and left contamination. Often the real estate has been abandoned or forfeited a long time and cannot be developed or used until the hazards are removed.

Brownfields result from such places as manufacturing plants and former military bases that historically used materials in large quantities that we now know are toxic to humans, wildlife, groundwater and soil. In other cases, a large-scale release of something toxic may not have been properly remediated.

It is feasible to analyze the sites and then remediate the damage to them so that they’re safe and usable once again. Typically, land developers and others who need land are leery of brownfield sites because there are so many unknown factors about what may be in, under or around a building or land site, and removal regulations are strict.

Superfund: You may also hear the term environmental Superfund, which is a pot of money dedicated basically to finding and fixing brownfield and other hazardous sites. Part of its purpose and funds are for checking on the progress and results of oil-spill and other cleanup efforts.

Corrective action: Laws have evolved and changed, such as with the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, to hold property and business owners responsible for their treatment, storage and disposal facilities, as well as any accidental leaks or spills. It behooves any business using harmful chemicals to implement best practices, form a plan and educate its employees since any mishaps have the potential to be disastrous and costly.

USTs: UST stands for an underground storage tank, which is a crucial concern because the old, forgotten, subsurface vessels leak into soil and groundwater and can not only be a fire hazard but also cause explosions. EPA uses the term underground, but the definition for a UST is any storage container of a harmful chemical that is 10 percent buried or more.

Air quality: EPA also works toward clean air and is mostly concerned with the measurable particulate matter in both indoor and outdoor air. It presents health concerns and liability issues because bad air quality affects humans, the environment and the economy.

The fine particulate matter can penetrate the respiratory systems of humans and other animals. It also skews the light when it’s in the air and impairs visibility. Many people know the drill with air quality because they live in a city with ozone alert levels, or they may live in a state that demands emissions testing to be sure vehicles are not emitting more carbon than is allowed by law.

  1. Which Industries Worry About Spills?

It would be practically impossible to list all the different businesses and companies that have potential concerns about oil or chemical spills, but these are a few of them:

  • Automotive shops
  • Aviation
  • Agriculture operations
  • Boaters
  • Construction companies
  • Gas stations/truck stops
  • Government entities
  • Grocers
  • Energy providers
  • Food businesses
  • Land developers
  • Landscapers
  • Manufacturers
  • Military
  • Oil and gas drillers, carriers, refiners, suppliers
  • Pipeline owners and operators
  • Railroad
  • Real estate owners
  • Retailers
  • Printers
  • Salvage yards
  • Trucking and transport
  • Water-based operations such as marinas

As you can imagine, there are a variety of other industries that either regularly or occasionally handle and manage hazardous materials as part of their business.

  1. How Much Is Enough to Report?

If there is enough oil to create a sheen on the water’s surface or any amount of sludge beneath it, the spill should be reported.

The EPA defines the parameters of how much of a material is too much within its extensive data on the reportable quantities of different hazardous chemicals. For oil spills in water, it uses the sheen or sludge rule: Simply put, if there is enough oil to create a sheen on the water’s surface or any amount of sludge beneath it, the spill should be reported.

A lot of people wonder what to do if there is an oil spill on land, and usually, the first step is to estimate about how much of it escaped. Any amount of oil that reaches groundwater is reportable. Many states have differing requirements on the threshold for reporting an oil spill on land. For general examples, laws in Minnesota and Pennsylvania say any spill greater than five gallons warrants a report to authorities. Texas’ tolerance is 210 gallons of oil, while in Oregon an oil spill is reportable if it exceeds 42 gallons.

If the detected spill or leak seems to be more than a few gallons, it’s probably best to report it to the state authorities that govern land, air and water quality. Most of them have regional offices, but most municipal or county offices would be able to make a referral of where you call.

  1. Where Can I Learn How to Report an Oil Spill?

    The federal, centralized reporting mechanism is the National Response Center (NRC) at phone number 1-800-424-8802

When oil or another type of hazardous material has been released, reporting the spill or leakage is easier than most people might think. The federal, centralized reporting mechanism is the National Response Center (NRC) at phone number 1-800-424-8802, where there is a person from the U.S. Coast Guard to take reports 24 hours a day.

Typically, this number would be where you call when a large quantity of oil or a hazardous material spills into water, but it can be helpful in connecting with the right officials for land spills, too.

Each caller to NRC is asked to provide as much information as possible, and the data needed will be similar when calling a state or regional agency:

  • Name, location, organization, and contact information
  • Name and address of the party responsible for the spill or leak
  • Date and time the incident happened
  • Location, cause and source of the spill
  • Kinds of materials released
  • Size of spill
  • How much land and water are affected by the spill
  • Threats or danger due to the spill
  • Assessment of injuries or fatalities (if any)
  • Weather conditions at the incident location
  • Evacuation status
  • Other entities that have or will receive notification of the spill

It can be confusing to figure out what agency to call and realistically, any of them should be able to connect you to the right contact, whether it is local, county, regional, state, federal or some combination of those. In general, these guidelines can help keep it straight:

  1. The U.S. Coast Guard takes the lead on any oil or chemical spills in coastal or deep waters.
  2. EPA leads on the response to oil and hazardous materials spills that reach inland waters.
  3. Any spill of any amount of oil or harmful chemicals that reaches groundwater or water bodies should be reported to either or both entities.
  4. For land spills, states are usually the lead authority on response, and other agencies may lend support depending on the scale of the spill, leak or project.
  5. Anyone can spot and report an oil spill on land or in water, and people can be key sets of eyes and ears integral to an overall environmental-protection effort.

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 gave the government authority to hold spillers responsible for the cost of cleanup. While the act applies mostly to spills in waterways, its principles also apply to on-land spills.

The EPA’s Spill Prevention Control and Countermeasure (SPCC) formulates the preparation and response for any oil spill within America’s inland waters, and it seems to be working. The agency states the program has reduced the number of oil spills to less than 1 percent of the total volume of oil handled annually.

  1. What Happens With Oil Spills in Water?

Depending on how much and what kind of oil spills in water, it usually floats on the top of both salt and fresh water unless it is heavy oil, in which case it sinks. Its radius on top of the water spreads as the spill progresses, and it will typically form a sheen. Methods of cleanup vary and must match the exact location and its characteristics, but generally, there are a few fundamental ways oil and other chemicals might be removed from water:

  1. Barges go in as a physical barrier to prevent the oil from traveling further on the surface of the water.
  2. Chemical or biological agents, dispersants, are put into the water to absorb and neutralize the spilled substance.
  3. In-situ burning involves setting the oil afire and letting in burn off the top of the water.
  4. Scoops and skimmers are used to essentially scrape the layer of oil off the top of the water or grab significant collections of the material to remove it.
  5. Sorbents are a lot like a giant sponge made to soak up oil.
  6. Vacuum trucks have a long, extending hose that sucks the oil off the surface of the water or land.
  7. Leave it to disperse naturally, usually for small amounts in the ocean, among the high energy of the wind and waves.

Near the water and still on land, you might see folks using shovels to move sand so that the tide cleans it. Hot-water pressure washers are often used to remove oil from rocks and other features along coastal and freshwater beaches.

  1. What Should I Know About Spill Prevention and Response?

The two most important points are probably to plan and prepare. Proactive entities that deal with oil, chemicals or a hazardous substance often ask the question: How we can prevent spills, leaks and other crises?

The scope of that prevention might entail everything from regular, thorough inspection to pre-emptive services or replacement. While no plan is foolproof, it helps to at least have one, along with a little education about best practices to both prevent spills and react quickly and effectively when they do happen.

The law requires a formal plan for many kinds of businesses that deal with hazardous materials.

The EPA and most states offer guidance in how to prepare for an emergency, and the law requires a formal plan for many kinds of businesses that deal with hazardous materials. Departments of environmental matters could be called by different names in each state, but they’ll each have a specific number and contact information for reporting spills or leaks.

For example, in Alabama, people go to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management to report an oil or chemical spill. The state also gives the NRC’s contact information, as well as the number of several field offices. Everyone on a team responsible for safety would want to have the most local numbers possible along with state, NRC, EPA and Coast Guard.

In addition to emergency response and evacuation plans, companies make sure the essential information is in place before it’s needed. People can put the number in their phones, or print it on a magnet for handy reference, and everyone is encouraged or incentivized to have the information nearby.

  1. Where Can I Find a Professional, Experienced Partner?

Alexanders Industrial Services include air and hydro excavation to help work around sensitive, underground infrastructure and to reach even the most difficult and remote locations.

Alexanders Industrial Services provides a full line of industrial cleaning and environmental services to a range of clients — utility contractors, government entities, commercial businesses, industrial facilities and others throughout the Southeast. We’re a veteran-owned business in Phenix City, Alabama, with many years of experience managing both planned and emergency cleanup events.

Our projects entail such things as cleaning to rigorous standards in production, manufacturing and food plants. Our work involves environmental cleanup of oil and chemicals spills both emergency and planned, and we regularly help with things like cleaning for a pond closure, removing sludge and remediating soil. AIS also provides directional drilling services with a specialization in rock drilling.

We offer product sales and rental to help clients with cleaning materials and container management. AIS cleans silos and other types of agricultural and industrial elements. Our extensive vacuum-truck services feature air movers and liquid rings for expedited loading, transfer and recovery. The trucks can remove materials from pits, lagoons, storm drains, pipes, boilers, tanks, dust collectors, retention ponds and more.

Alexanders Industrial Services include air and hydro evacuation to help work around sensitive, underground infrastructure and to reach even the most difficult and remote locations. Water-blasting services are a workhorse of the industrial cleaning projects and will clean nearly any surface, from drain pipes and tanks to machinery and cars.

Everybody wants an experienced, professional, partner with the expertise to manage a release of any kind. AIS brings deep knowledge, gritty determination and earned integrity to each job and each client. We encourage you to contact us to talk about your plan and needs.