The government has a plan for responding to your oil spill. Do you?
In February, due to a collision between a tug boat and a tank barge, approximately 31,500 gallons of crude oil were released into the Mississippi River. The Mississippi River was closed down for two days and the residents of St. Charles Parish sat on pins and needles, waiting to find out if their drinking water would be contaminated. Thankfully, the drinking water was not affected, there were no reports of serious environmental damage and the River re-opened several days after the closure. It doesn’t always and happily, however.
A question of when; not if …
Unfortunately, the potential for a spill like this is always present when operating vessels. Similar spills occurred on the Mississippi River in 2013 when 80,000 gallons were released when a barge hit a train bridge and in 2012 when 10,000 gallons were released when a barge hit a bridge. In 2008, a major spill occurred on the Mississippi River, when a barge broke in half after a collision and spilled 283,000 gallons of oil into the river closing it for six days.
Oil spills are a risk regardless of how safe and well trained your crew is. Unfortunately, in the marine environment there are too many variables at work and, if they all line up against you at the same time, this type of disaster could happen to your company. As the potential is always out there, it is important to have a plan and know how to respond as soon as you are notified that a spill has occurred.
The federal government has developed a plan for responding to spill incidents and it is important to know how to notify the government, and just as importantly, how they will respond to the incident. It is also important to have a company plan that provides a response procedure that allows the government to be notified, manage the company’s response to the incident and allow the government and the company to work together to minimize the effect of the spill on the environment, the public and the company.
The Government’s Playbook
The federal government’s response is governed by the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan, more commonly called the National Contingency Plan or NCP. The NCP is the federal government’s blueprint for responding to both oil spills and hazardous substance releases. The NCP has developed a national response capability and promoted coordination among the hierarchy of responders. The NCP was implemented in 1968 in response to a massive oil spill from the oil tanker Torrey Canyon. The plan has been modified several times over the years, with the last major revision occurring after the implementation of OPA 90. The NCP establishes Regional Response Teams (RRT) and their roles and responsibilities in the national response system, including coordinating preparedness, planning, and response at the regional level. The RRT consists of a standing team made up of representatives for each federal agency that is included in planning spill response, as well as state and local government representatives.
The NCP requires notification of any discharge or release to the National Response Center through a toll-free telephone number. The National Response Center (NRC) acts as the central clearinghouse for all pollution incident reporting. The NCP has a pre-designated On-Scene Coordinator to direct all federal, state, and private response activities at the site of a discharge. The process establishes a unified command structure for managing the response through coordinating personnel and the resources of the federal government, the state government, and the responsible party. Essentially, once you place the call to the NRC, the RRT will take over and manage the response.
Although the RRT will manage the spill response, each marine operator should have in place a detailed environmental emergency response plan. The purpose of the plan is to provide guidance to the vessel’s captain and officers with respect to steps to be taken when a pollution incident has occurred. The primary purpose of the plan is to set into motion the necessary actions to minimize the discharge and mitigate the effects of a discharge. Effective planning will make sure that necessary actions are taken in a structured, logical and timely manner. An effective plan will guide the vessel’s captain through the various actions and decisions that will be required during an incident response.
The Operator’s Role
Response plans must contain several elements including vessel particulars, reporting requirements, what to do in the event of a discharge, how to report a discharge and how the response will be coordinated with national and/or local authorities. In addition to these topics, a plan may also contain additional information such as a description of the equipment to be utilized in the event of a release, information on how to handle public relations, check lists to be used in the case of an emergency, procedures for critical tasks that could cause a pollution incident, or the requirements for conducting ongoing drills.
Each vessel’s plan should provide the particulars for the vessel. Although this information can easily be provided by the vessel’s captain, in the event of an emergency, this information may need to be provided quickly at a time when the captain may not be available. The plan should identify the name of the vessel, the vessel’s owner and operator, the official number, the flag, port of registry, vessel builder, gross tonnage, length, draft, etc. If this information is included in the emergency response document, any crew member will be able to provide this pertinent data to the authorities.
The next section of the plan should assist the crew in determining whether a discharge of oil, should be reported and to whom it should be reported. As such, the first element of the vessel’s response is to assess the nature of the incident. The crew member who becomes aware of the discharge should immediately alert other crew members, identify the source of the spill and then a spill assessment can be conducted. Once the spill is assessed, the vessel’s captain can determine whether the discharge should be reported.
It is important that the crew knows that reporting a spill is required whenever there is a discharge of oil resulting from damage to the vessel or its equipment, an intentional discharge for the purpose of securing the safety of the vessel or saving a life at sea, or during the operation of the vessel. In addition to these actual discharges, a probable discharge should be reported when a discharge is noticed on the surface of the water when the crew is unable to determine where the discharge is coming from. As with the vessel particulars, it is pertinent to have a checklist included within the plan that provides crewmembers a quick description of how they should proceed.
The captain should report the spill by the quickest means possible, whether via radio or telephone. The plan should include a contact list that the captain can use to report the incident. Under most circumstances, the list should include contacting the company’s operation center, the dock/terminal operator where the vessel is working, and the state and federal authorities. The captain should provide an initial report that includes the location of the spill, the characteristics of the oil spilled, the disposition of the vessel and its cargo, the movement of the slick and the type of assistance required.
This section of the plan should include a listing of the reporting number for the NRC and all of the government agencies and designated response companies that should be contacted in the case of an emergency. These agencies could include entities such as the United States Coast Guard, MMS, the adjoining state’s Oil Spill Response Office, the adjacent state’s Department of Environmental Quality, the State Police Hazardous Material Unit, and the State Police Emergency Response Unit. Specific numbers for each state that your vessel operates in should be included as part of the plan.
Special Circumstances: the devil in the details
The plan should also provide the procedures for dealing with specific events that may cause a spill. Such events can include the transfer of fuel while fueling the vessel, the transfer of material from the vessel to another vessel or platform, leakage from equipment on deck such as winches, pumps, etc. or the leakage of material caused by a vessel casualty. As one would expect, the crew’s response to each of these particular events would be much different. A response to a vessel grounding causing fuel to leak from a tank would be very different from the leaking of fluid from a winch located on deck. Providing a simple checklist provides the crew with a listing of the tasks that need to be completed to minimize the chance of a spill.
Furthermore, the plan should designate which member of the crew is responsible for documenting the incident by maintaining logs, diaries, etc. detailing the incident, the reporting of the incident, the response of the incident and the incident clean-up. As the captain is usually very busy during an emergency incident, it may be wise to designate a mate or other similar officer for this task.
Additional areas of the plan could include a section on how to deal with the public relations aspect of the spill. As such, the plan should detail which company representatives are authorized to issue statements or give information to any of the entities that may request information that are not included in the plan. For example, ship board personnel need to be authorized to provide information to MMS, Coast Guard, State Police, etc. However, these employees should not be authorized to provide information to local media, environmental groups, etc. The plan should designate which company representative is responsible for providing information to these other entities.
Although none of us want to have a spill, it is important to develop a response plan prior to receiving the call from a vessel notifying you that a spill has occurred. An effective plan will allow the company to coordinate the activities of company personnel, to assist the federal government in responding to the spill and attempt to minimize the effect that a release will have to both the company’s reputation and bottom line. Pre-spill planning may seem like carrying an umbrella on a sunny day. That said; you will be glad that you spent the time planning for an oil spill if you ever do receive a call notifying you that one of your vessels is involved with a spill.
(As published in the April 2014 edition of Marine News - www.marinelink.com)