Oil Spill Containment

Spill prevention is of course always the best policy. An effective specific spill prevention, control, and countermeasures plan (SPCC) has as much to do with preventing a spill as having the correct response equipment on hand. Following the appropriate protocols as defined in the SPCC plan as well as maintenance procedures ensures the safe operation of equipment aiding in the goal of preventing a spill from occurring in the first place.

To determine if you are required to have a SPCC plan ask the following questions:

Do I store, process, transfer, distribute, use, drill, produce, gather or refine oil or oil products? Is the total shell capacity of the oil containers greater than 1,320 gallons? You must total the total capacity of the containers, not just the amount of oil actually in them. You only have to count oil in containers, tanks, generators, etc. with a capacity of 55 gallons or greater. Could a discharge of oil from my facility be reasonably expected to impact waters? Is my facility non-transportation related? A facility, or part of a facility, may be both transportation and non-transportation related based upon its mode of operation at any given time.

If you can answer yes to any of these questions, then you must prepare and implement as SPCC plan. In most cases the plan may call for the facility to have an oil spill removal organization (OSRO) identified in case of an emergency. The OSRO must meet strict quidelines and maintain spill response equipment as required by the United States Coast Guard. OSRO’s are subject to inspections by the Coast Guard to guarantee they are meeting the requirements their classification designates.

However, no matter how much we try to prevent a spill, spills can and will occur. When a spill does happen a quick and effective response will greatly reduce the damage a spill can have on the environment and reduce the cost of the cleanup. The sudden release or spill can be a chaotic time, this is when your training and having the right spill equipment comes into play. It may be helpful at this time to think of spill containment as the three C’s of handling a spill; these are control, contain, and cleanup. Controlling the release is to stop the cause or the source of the spill. Control of the spill can be as simple as shutting an open valve or as complicated as digging up a leaking pipeline and patching it. Whatever the source the spill must be controlled, stopped or at least slowed down.

Containing the spill will reduce the damage a spill can cause by keeping the product from migrating to other areas. The product spilled can be contained by using containment booms, earthen dams, absorbent material, or whatever is available to stop the spread. The final step is the cleanup of the contaminant from the affected area. The spill can then be recovered by mechanical means such as skimmers, vacuum trucks, or by the use of absorbent materials in the form of booms, pads, and particulate.

With any spill response it is important to observe some basic safety rules before any spill containment activity begins. Stop and evaluate the hazards in the area that is affected. Do not rush in before the safety of those involved in the response is considered, failure to do so may complicate an already dire situation. Always respond to any spill in teams or also referred to as the buddy system. There is always safety in numbers and having a backup in an emergency situation can save lives. If the product spilled is from a known source consult the appropriate safety data sheet (SDS) before responding. The SDS sheets will provide a wealth of information that can be useful in making a safe response. Some of the information contained will include the proper personal protective equipment (PPE) required, emergency control measures, physical and chemical properties, toxicological information as well as what the impact of the contaminant may have on the environment. SDS sheets will also provide important guidance on the proper disposal methods to use on the recovered product. Knowing the chemical hazards of the product spilled is important but also knowing the limitations of your responders is vital. Do not respond to an environmental spill that exceeds your training or capabilities. If for example, the action needed to control a release requires a confined space entry and you are not trained or equipped to do so, stop and wait for a responder that has the proper training.

A site risk evaluation is also critical for a safe spill response. A site safety plan should always be performed before responding to a spill. The safety plan should address a description of the affected environment with specific attention to any fire or explosive hazards. The plan should indicate any slips, trips, or fall hazards that may not be obvious to the responders.

By following the procedures outline in a well drafted SPCC plan and having the training, equipment, and responders available, a spill can be controlled, contained and cleaned up with minimal damage to the environment.

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