EPA’s Response Techniques
When a hazardous substance release or oil spill is reported, EPA may perform a variety of emergency response actions. This is done through EPA's 10 regional offices and in close cooperation with a network of federal, state, and local governments.
When a hazardous substance release is reported, EPA's 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. Site investigation also allows responders to determine the appropriate response alternatives and safety measures to take during the response effort.
Once information has been gathered about the release, responders will consider the health and ecological hazards and possible exposure pathways of the hazardous substance. They may use response methods including:
- 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; and/or
- Installing fences to prevent direct contact with hazardous substances.
A number of advanced response mechanisms are available for controlling oil spills and minimizing their impacts on human health and the environment. Damage to spill-contaminated shorelines and dangers to other threatened areas can be reduced by timely and proper use of containment and recovery equipment. The following techniques may be used during an oil spill:
- Mechanical containment or recovery is the primary line of defense against oil spills in the United States. Containment and recovery equipment includes a variety of booms, barriers, and skimmers, as well as natural and synthetic sorbent materials. Mechanical containment is used to capture and store the spilled oil until it can be disposed of properly.
- Chemical and biological methods can be used in conjunction with mechanical means for containing and cleaning up oil spills. Dispersing agents and gelling agents are most useful in helping to keep oil from reaching shorelines and other sensitive habitats. Biological agents have the potential to assist recovery in sensitive areas such as shorelines, marshes, and wetlands. Subpart J of the National Contingency Plan (NCP) establishes the process for authorizing the use of dispersants and other chemical response agents. Subpart J also includes the NCP Product Schedule, which is the federal government's listing of chemical countermeasures that are available for use during or after an oil spill response.
- Physical methods are used to clean up shorelines. Natural processes such as evaporation, oxidation, and biodegradation can start the cleanup process, but are generally too slow to provide adequate environmental recovery. Physical methods such as wiping with sorbent materials, pressure washing, and raking and bulldozing can be used to assist these natural processes.
Scare tactics are used to protect birds and animals by keeping them away from oil spill areas. Devices such as propane scare-cans, floating dummies, and helium-filled balloons are often used, particularly to keep away birds.