Oil spills are defined as the uncontrolled release of crude oil, gas, or any other oil byproduct occurring on land or in the water. And while they're fairly uncommon, the aftermath of an oil spill often has a detrimental effect on the environment and local ecosystems if it's not properly contained and cleaned up. In addition to this, spills can generate bad press and harm a company's reputation based on the impact on area wildlife, drinking water, and more.

Because the oil industry still makes up nearly half of all global energy systems, the risk of an oil spill is prevalent in our society. But there are various means of preventing spills from happening. In this post, we'll cover some of the common oil spill prevention methods, mandatory preparedness plans, rules and regulations, and oil spill protective clothing.

Here’s what your facility needs to know to prevent and respond to oil spills.

Oil Spill Prevention

We're used to hearing about massive oil spills, such as the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico that released hundreds of millions of gallons of oil into the ocean. In reality, these events tend to be few and far between. Most oil spills are much smaller in size, often consisting of less than one barrel of oil spilled.

And many occur in facilities that have above ground or underground storage tanks. Prevention remains key to reducing the risk of a spill, as oil spills of any size can be harmful. Some common prevention strategies include:

  • Regular inspection of any vessels, tanks, or transfer operations.
  • Detailing specific rules and regulations for oil storage, transfer, and containment.
  • Formulating a detailed prevention and oil spill response plan.
  • Regular training and education for workers.
  • Having the right cleanup equipment on hand in the event of a spill.

One requirement of applicable facilities is to have a Facility Response Plan, or FRP, on hand should an oil spill occur. We'll get into more of what's required via the Spill Prevention, Control and Countermeasure (SPCC) regulation in the next section.

Spill Prevention, Control and Countermeasure (SPCC) Regulation: What You Need to Know

Originally conceived in the 1970s via the Clean Water Act and refined over time, the main goal of the Spill Prevention, Control and Countermeasure (SPCC) regulation is to prevent oil from reaching waterways and shorelines. It's also intended to provide a framework for containing any discharge of oil on a per-facility basis. Think of it as a safety manual that's specific to oil spills.

All eligible facilities with above ground or underground storage tanks are required to develop and implement their own specific SPCC facility response plan and establish associated procedures, methods, and equipment requirements as necessary. These plans are required by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations.

Specifically, SPCC plans are required for any facility with an above-ground storage capacity of 1,320 gallons or more or an underground storage capacity exceeding 42,000 gallons. Another requirement is proximity to navigable waters. If the facility is located in an area that could reasonably anticipate a spill reaching such waters, an SPCC plan is required.

Essential Elements of an SPCC Plan

There are various elements of an SPCC plan that must be considered and documented by eligible facilities. For instance:

  • SPCC plans must include a diagram and description of the facility's discharge predictions.
  • Secondary containment or diversionary structures must be considered and documented.
  • Drainage patterns must be considered and documented.
  • Site security and facility inspections must be included.
  • Inspections, overfill, and integrity testing requirements for bulk storage containers must be considered and documented.
  • Transfer procedures and equipment must be considered and documented.
  • Requirements for oil-filled operational equipment must be documented.
  • Loading and unloading rack requirements for tank cars and trucks must be documented.
  • Brittle fracture evaluations must be included for any aboveground constructed containers.
  • Personnel training and discharge prevention must be documented.
  • There are various recordkeeping requirements that must be documented.
  • The SPCC must include a five-year plan review.
  • Management must approve the SPCC.
  • The plan must also be certified. This often comes from an engineer or the facility owner or operator.

What Should You Do if You Have an Oil Spill?

Despite even the best preventative efforts, oil spills may still happen. And when they do, it's important to enact the SPCC plan to mitigate their effects. Small oil spills are typically defined as any spill that's six gallons or less, while large spills tend to be anything that's more than six gallons. Regardless of what type of spill it is, the response remains similar. Generally speaking, it's important to:

  • Identify the source of the leak or spill and stop it if you can.
  • Wearing the proper personal protective equipment (PPE), isolate the affected area.
  • Prevent any oil from entering storm or sewer drains and thereby entering the water system or navigable waters.
  • Clean up the spill using a mix of spill kits, sorbet pads and other tools. Granular oil sorbets are another effective tool.
  • Dispose of any oil - and any tools used to clean up oil - by discarding it into appropriate hazardous waste containers. Properly dispose of oil with an appropriate environmental vendor.
  • If necessary, ensure you're complying with any federal, state, or other local requirements for reporting the spill. These requirements are often based on how much oil was spilled and the impact on the surrounding environment.
  • If necessary, ensure compliance with any HAZMAT regulations.

Indoor spills are generally easier to contain and clean up than outdoor spills are. Each type of spill should follow the same procedures and methods.

Oil Spill PPE

As we noted above, the proper PPE should be worn by all workers responding to an oil spill - whether it's during the containment or cleanup phase. According to OSHA, some of the common types of protective equipment that should be worn when responding to an oil spill include:

  • Oil-resistant gloves
  • Boots
  • A full-body coverall
  • Safety glasses
  • A properly fit-tested respirator

OSHA also mandates that any workers involved in an oil spill cleanup should receive proper training on site hazards and general oil spill hazards before they're permitted to help clean up a site. This training should be conducted by trained personnel with extensive training in oil spill cleanup.

Governing Bodies that Regulate Oil Spills

So, who regulates oil spill prevention, preparedness, and responses? There are various governing bodies that have established policies related to oil spills, both at the federal and local levels. Many of these governing bodies may also come into play depending on where the spill occurs. Here's an overview of these governing bodies:

  • Occupational Safety and Health Administration
  • Environmental Protection Agency
  • The U.S. Coast Guard
  • The Department of Transportation
  • U.S. Department of the Interior

The U.S. Coast Guard is the lead response agency for any spills that occur in coastal waters, while the EPA is the lead response agency for any spills that occur in inland waters. In addition to these entities, spills may also be regulated by local agencies or municipalities.

An oil spill isn't something that anyone wants to think about, but it's necessary to have a plan in place should one ever occur at your facility. And part of this plan includes educating workers on prevention and preparedness and ensuring that you have the right tools, equipment, and PPE on hand to make for a safe and effective cleanup. Now's the time to evaluate your oil spill prevention, preparedness, and response plan(s) to ensure your business is able handle any type of spill safely.