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Response and Clean-up Technologies

Responding Agencies

Because a hazardous substance release or an oil spill could occur virtually anywhere and at any time, EPA and a network of federal, state, and local responders stand ready 24 hours a day to contain and clean-up the discharged oil and released chemicals. EPA's Emergency Response program has a leadership role in this National Response System that promotes coordinated emergency response actions and guarantees the availability of resources to cover all possible release scenarios. This coordination allows federal, state, and local agencies to work together to respond to all emergencies efficiently. EPA also provides other financial and technical support as needed to assist local communities in responding to the broad range of emergency response incidents that may occur.

Contingency Planning

One of EPA's major tasks is to coordinate contingency planning efforts with other agencies to ensure that emergency responses are carried out quickly and with maximum effectiveness. To further ensure the readiness of its response teams, EPA provides training to emergency responders so that they have the necessary skills and use appropriate precautions when undertaking emergency response measures.

Contingency plans describe the information and processes for responding to hazardous substance emergencies, including the roles and responsibilities of the different responding agencies, the location and availability of response resources, the process for conducting the response, and other actions necessary to ensure a safe and effective cleanup. When used properly by trained personnel, a well-designed contingency plan enables response efforts to proceed smoothly and effectively, minimizes danger to cleanup personnel, reduces overall costs of cleanup by avoiding unnecessary effort, and ensures the protection of human health and the environment. Because the approaches and methods for responding to releases are constantly evolving, contingency plans also are constantly evolving and improving.

A network of contingency plans with different levels of geographical scope form the backbone of our country's efforts to prepare for and coordinate responses to emergency incidents:

  • The National Contingency Plan Overview (National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan - 40 CFR Part 300) is the federal government's primary plan for preparing for, and coordinating with, other emergency responders. The National Contingency Plan establishes the principles and structure of the unified command system and identifies the roles and responsibilities of the key players within the system.
  • The federal government also prepares Regional and Area Contingency Plans that coordinate effective responses within each of the 10 standard federal regions and other designated Areas covering Alaska, the Caribbean, and several islands in the Pacific. These plans include preparedness information on a regional level and identify useful response facilities and resources available from government, commercial, academic, and other sources.
  • At the local level, Local Contingency Plans are developed to prepare and organize local resources in the event of the accidental release of hazardous substances. Under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986 (EPCRA), state governors are required to establish State Emergency Response Commissions, which in turn establish Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPCs) for districts within the state. These emergency planning organizations are responsible for developing local contingency plans using chemical inventory information collected as part of the law's community right-to-know provisions.
  • Federal on-scene coordinators, who are the federal government's frontline staff during an incident, may develop an On-Scene Coordinator (OSC) Contingency Plan for responses in the OSC's area of responsibility. These plans identify probable locations of releases, the availability and location of emergency response resources, and the local structure for responding to release incidents.

Taken together, these activities and resources form the cornerstone of our country's ability to respond to hazardous substance emergencies regardless of their nature, size, or location.

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Response to Hazardous Substance Releases

When a hazardous substance release is reported, the Emergency Response program sets its response procedures into motion. Many steps and safety precautions must be followed to ensure a swift and effective response to the emergency.

The first step in any response action is to investigate the site. When a release is first reported, responders may not know all the necessary information such as how the release occurred, the extent of the damage, or even what hazardous substances are involved. All this information must be learned before any effective response effort can be carried out. Site investigation also allows responders to determine the appropriate safety measures to take during the response effort.

Response actions fall into three main categories, depending on the urgency of the situation. Once information has been gathered about the release, responders can determine what type of response action should be taken. A clean-up effort may be long-term or short-term. Depending on the circumstances, responders may employ some or all of these methods:

  • Removing hazardous substances in soil or in containers
  • Burning or otherwise treating hazardous substances
  • Draining waste ponds or repairing leaky waste disposal pits so that hazardous substances do not seep into the ground
  • Using chemicals to stop the spread of the hazardous substance release
  • Encasing hazardous substances in place or otherwise ensuring that winds or rain do not move them around
  • Providing a safe supply of drinking water to people affected by hazardous substance contamination
  • Temporarily moving residents affected by hazardous substance contamination while cleanup activities take place
  • Installing fences to prevent direct contact with hazardous substances

EPA has made great accomplishments, having conducted several thousand response actions since the Emergency Response program began in 1980, and has directed and monitored many other actions carried out by those responsible for the contamination. The threats confronted by the EPA Emergency Response program vary greatly in size, nature, and location, and have involved EPA in incidents requiring unusual or complex emergency response actions.

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Response to Oil Spills

Despite the nation's best efforts to prevent spills, almost 14,000 oil spills are reported each year, mobilizing thousands of specially trained emergency response personnel and challenging the best-laid contingency plans. Although many spills are contained and cleaned up by the party responsible for the spill, some spills require assistance from local and state agencies, and occasionally, the federal government. Under the National Contingency Plan, EPA is the lead federal response agency for oil spills occurring in inland waters, and the U.S. Coast Guard is the lead response agency for spills in coastal waters and deepwater ports.

Whether or not it manages the response, EPA tracks all reports of oil spills. EPA usually learns about a spill from the responsible party, who is required by law to report the spill to the federal government, or from state and local responders. Once the federal government receives the report, either through the National Response Center, EPA, or another agency, it is recorded in the Emergency Response Notification System, or ERNS. ERNS contains historical spill information for the entire country dating from 1986, and is currently available for downloading.

For more information on oil spill response:

Nationally Significant Incidents
Response Techniques
Rescuing Wildlife
Selection Guide for Oil Spill Applied Technologies at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

To learn more about oil spills, please visit threats from oil spills.

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