Question: If a hazardous chemical is spilled at the workplace but is contained in a secondary containment system, does it have to be reported to the EPA?
Answer: Although a lot of focus is put on spills, what the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is primarily concerned about is releases to the environment. The terms “spill” and “release” are often used interchangeably, but they do have different meanings.
For the sake of this discussion, a “spill” occurs whenever something gets out of its primary container. A “release” happens when something hazardous leaves your property by way of water, earth or air.
Several EPA regulations require facilities to have secondary containment or recommend it as a best practice to keep spills in a defined area until they can be cleaned up. One of the primary reasons for this is that secondary containment is a very effective way to contain spills so that they do not become releases.
Unless the secondary containment system fails to keep the spill from leaving your property, it generally does not need to be reported to the EPA. Only releases need to be reported. Note that this is at the federal level. Some states or local municipalities may have more stringent requirements. For example, if you feel that a release is eminent, the state or municipality may require notification so that they can take proper precautions or begin mitigation efforts.
Here’s a quick look at the guidelines EPA has established for reporting releases:
Oil and oil product releases must be reported when they meet at least one of the following characteristics:
- Violate any applicable water quality standard
- Create a film, sheen or any other discoloration on the surface of water or an adjoining shoreline
- Cause a sludge or emulsion below the surface of the water or on an adjoining shoreline
Hazardous substance releases must be reported when they meet at least one of the following characteristics:
In the event that your facility does have a release, it needs to be reported to the National Response Center (NRC) at 1-800-424-8802. The NRC is staffed 24/7, but if they cannot be reached for whatever reason, releases can also be reported to the EPA Regional Office or the U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety Office in the area where the incident occurred. Most state environmental agencies and local emergency management agencies also require facilities to notify them when a release occurs.
Some of the information that NRC personnel will ask for includes:
- Your name, location, organization, and telephone number
- Name and address of the party responsible for the incident; or name of the carrier or vessel, the railcar/truck number, or other identifying information
- Date and time of the incident
- Location of the incident
- Source and cause of the release or spill
- Types of material(s) released or spilled
- Quantity of materials released or spilled
- Medium (e.g. land, water) affected by release or spill
- Danger or threat posed by the release or spill
- Number and types of injuries or fatalities (if any)
- Weather conditions at the incident location
- Whether an evacuation has occurred
- Other agencies notified or about to be notified
- Any other information that may help emergency personnel respond to the incident
Being prepared for spills by using secondary containment systems, stocking spill response supplies, training employees to recognize and respond to incidental spills and following good housekeeping procedures are all great ways to prevent spills from becoming reportable releases. It’s also a great idea to work with local response agencies that can help you to be prepared for spills and provide the first line of backup if there ever is a release.