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Responding to Marine Oil Spills

How Marine Oil Spill Responses Are Organized and Managed

Marine oil spill response is organized and managed according to the regulations found in 40 CFR 300, the National Oil and Hazardous Substance Pollution Contingency Plan (NCP). These regulations describe procedures for responding to hazardous substance releases and oil discharges. Appendix E of the regulation specifically addresses oil spill response. The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) jointly led the development of the NCP.

Marine oil spill response involves a network of government agencies, community organizations, industry groups, and contractors. Federal and/or state agencies usually monitor the responsible party (generally the owner or operator of the vessel, facility, port, or pipeline involved in the spill). The Federal Government can direct cleanup operations if the responsible party does not respond adequately, is not capable of taking action, or is unknown.

An On-Scene Coordinator (OSC) acts as the leader for response activities. In the coastal areas of the United States, USCG serves as the OSC for oil spill responses. In inland areas, including rivers and other inland waters, EPA generally takes the lead.

HAZWOPER (The Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response Standard) requires that a senior official who is present at the response site, an Incident Commander, lead an emergency response operation. For marine oil spills, the ranking Coast Guard officer or EPA official at the spill scene usually functions as the On-Scene Incident Commander. The emergency response remains in effect until the Incident Commander declares it completed.

OSHA is responsible for assuring safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women. During marine oil spill response, OSHA provides advice and consultation at the request of other government agencies. If necessary, OSHA uses enforcement action to assure that workers are properly protected.

Emergency Response vs. Post-Emergency Response

The HAZWOPER standard identifies two basic phases of a response action: emergency response and post-emergency response. Depending on the size of the spill, these phases may be managed differently. In addition, workers who participate ONLY in post-emergency response require different training than emergency response workers receive.

Emergency response is a response effort...to an occurrence which results, or is likely to result, in an uncontrolled release of a hazardous substance (29 CFR 1910.120(a)(3)). For marine oil spills, an uncontrolled release is a situation in which the oil and its associated airborne and surface contamination hazards are releasing into the environment, or are in danger of being released into the environment, and posing a worker exposure hazard. Oil in grounded ships, which is in danger of being released into the environment, represents an emergency response situation. Onwater containment, skimming operations, and underwater oil recovery operations also are considered to be emergency response activities because the oil is still in danger of being released into the environment. Shoreline cleanup is normally considered to be a post-emergency response unless the oil is below the high-tide mark or storm surge boundary (active or forecasted) and can reasonably be expected to be re-released into the marine environment.

Post-emergency response is performed after the immediate threat of a release has been stabilized or eliminated and cleanup of the site has begun (29 CFR 1910.120(a)(3)). Oil spilled into a marine environment is considered to be stabilized when it is in a stable container with no compromised structural integrity, to limit the potential for worker exposure to associated hazards. This includes floating bladders, barges, drums, and roll-off containers on shore. Oil also is considered to be stabilized when it is stranded on shore and not reasonably expected to rerelease into the environment through wave or storm effects. Floating oil is not considered to be stabilized, even if contained within a boom.

During response to a large release such as a marine oil spill, emergency response and postemergency response cleanup activities may occur at the same time. In these cases, the boundaries between the emergency response area and the post-emergency response area must be well defined and explained to responders and cleanup workers.

HAZWOPER Requirements that Apply to Marine Oil Spills

The NCP defines oil as any kind of oil in any form, including petroleum, fuel oil, sludge, oil refuse, and oil mixed with wastes but not dredged spoil (dirt or rock).

Response actions conducted under the NCP must comply with the provisions of HAZWOPER. You'll find this requirement in 40 CFR 300.150. Therefore, if your workers are participating in a response action under the NCP, you must have an occupational safety and health program consistent with HAZWOPER and you must train your workers according to HAZWOPER's training requirements. This applies whether the responsible party or a government agency is directing the cleanup.

For marine oil spill emergency response, the HAZWOPER provisions that most directly apply include:
Emergency response operations in HAZWOPER paragraph (q), and
Post-emergency response cleanup operations in paragraph (q)(11).
See also emergency response training provisions in paragraph (q)(6), and post-emergency response training requirements in paragraph (q)(11).


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