Responding to an Incident
First Line of DefenseWhen a release or spill occurs, the company responsible for the release, its response contractors, the local fire and police departments, and the local emergency response personnel provide the first line of defense. If needed, a variety of state agencies stand ready to support, assist, or take over response operations if an incident is beyond local capabilities. In cases where a local government or Indian tribe conducts temporary emergency measures in response to a hazardous substance release, but does not have emergency response funds budgeted, EPA operates the Local Governments Reimbursement program that will reimburse local governments or Indian tribes up to $25,000 per incident.
If the amount of a hazardous substance release or oil spill exceeds the established reporting trigger, the organization responsible for the release or spill is required by law to notify the federal government's National Response Center (NRC). Once a report is made, the NRC immediately notifies a pre-designated EPA or U.S. Coast Guard On-Scene Coordinator (OSC), based on the location of the spill. The procedure for determining the lead agency is clearly defined so there is no confusion about who is in charge during a response. The OSC determines the status of the local response and monitors the situation to determine whether, or how much, federal involvement is necessary. It is the OSC's job to ensure that the cleanup, whether accomplished by industry, local, state, or federal officials, is appropriate, timely, and minimizes human and environmental damage.
The OSC may determine that the local action is sufficient and that no additional federal action is required. If the incident is large or complex, the federal OSC may remain on the scene to monitor the response and advise on the deployment of personnel and equipment. However, the federal OSC will take command of the response in the following situations:
- If the party responsible for the chemical release or oil spill is unknown or not cooperative;
- If the OSC determines that the spill or release is beyond the capacity of the company, local, or state responders to manage; or
- For oil spills, if the incident is determined to present a substantial threat to public health or welfare due to the size or character of the spill.
The OSC may request additional support to respond to a release or spill, such as additional contractors, technical support from EPA's Environmental Response Team, or Scientific Support Coordinators from EPA or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The OSC also may seek support from the Regional Response Team to access special expertise or to provide additional logistical support. In addition, the National Response Team stands ready to provide backup policy and logistical support to the OSC and the RRT during an incident. The National Response System (NRS) Flowchart provides a quick reference for how additional resources are brought into the response.
The federal government will remain involved at the oil spill site following response actions to undertake a number of activities, including assessing damages, supporting restoration efforts, recovering response costs from the parties responsible for the spill, and, if necessary, enforcing the liability and penalty provisions of the Clean Water Act, as amended by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.