An oil spill could have disastrous consequences for nearby communities and the environment, which is why preparing for the unexpected is key to mitigating risk in the event of such an incident. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires high-risk facilities, such as an aviation fuel farm or power plant, that hold more than 1 million gallons of oil storage to have a facility response plan (FRP). An FRP arms the staff with procedures to follow in the event of an oil spill to prevent potentially significant environmental damage.

With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic pushing many of the traditional inspections to a virtual format, the EPA’s visits at FRP-regulated facilities are no exception. The EPA conducts government-initiated unannounced exercises (GIUE), performing thorough spot-checks annually. A GIUE is not conducted at every regulated facility each year, but randomly, to test the effectiveness of spill response, which directly impacts the resulting environmental damage and cleanup cost. But instead of an unannounced visit on-site, many facilities will be subjected to an off-site compliance monitoring (OfCM) activity conducted by the EPA to virtually test a facility’s spill response.

What’s involved in the EPA’s OfCM?

The EPA’s OfCM is a virtual exercise consisting of a questions-and-answers section, records review and tabletop exercise to check that a facility’s staff is well-trained and its FRP updated. EPA staff will virtually observe facility staff members as they conduct a spill response drill and deploy equipment in response to a small spill scenario.

Included in each virtual exercise is an overview of facility operations, a discussion of hazardous materials and response equipment stored on-site, and a review of spill scenarios and the EPA’s 27-hour spill planning distance. The questions-and-answers session lasts around an hour, and terminal operators will need to have a thorough understanding of their FRP — including knowing where information is located within the FRP.

What kind of records will the EPA request to review during the exercise?

Also lasting around an hour, terminal operators will be asked to share their screen during the virtual meeting to show and discuss records during review. The EPA will preselect one year of records to examine for various inspections, drills and exercises.

Some of the documents that will be reviewed include the spill notification form, response equipment checklist, response equipment inspection log and response equipment testing and deployment drill log. Records reviewed will also pertain to personnel information, especially as it relates to response training to show that staff are adequately prepared for a spill.

How can a facility prepare for the virtual tabletop portion of the exercise?

During the exercise, the EPA gives terminal operators a small spill scenario: a 2,100-gallon release from the facility will soon reach navigable water. The facility staff will be requested to complete its Spill Notification Form and provide documentation of how long it will take operators to reach the designated response location. Operators will need to call and verify phone numbers on the spill notification list, including federal, state and local agencies. Media phone numbers also need to be verified but do not need to be contacted, so as not to spread unnecessary panic. The time will need to be noted when each agency was contacted. The EPA will specifically look at what time the first call and last call were made.

What are the potential outcomes of the OFcM activity?

If the EPA indicates that a facility has not successfully completed the OFcM activity, the facility may be required to participate in an additional OfcM exercise until the facility passes. If another exercise is required, the EPA will work with facility staff on areas of improvement and then conduct another exam at a later date. The EPA may request modifications to be made to the facility’s FRP to improve response time to a spill.

There is the potential that other associated facilities may also be subjected to additional inspection in the event of failing the OfCM activity. If the facility passes the activity, typically the EPA deems daily operations and processes approved for three years, meaning it is considered capable of properly responding to and cleaning up an oil release to prevent nearby wildlife or local bodies of water from being significantly affected.


An integrated environmental team can help clients with every step of the FRP process, whether it’s making necessary modifications required by the EPA or creating an initial draft. Learn how to prepare for an unannounced FRP exercise by preparing documentation now.

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Amy Reed, PE, is an associate environmental engineer, compliance audit team member and project manager at Burns & McDonnell. A chemical engineer by training with over 20 years of experience, she specializes in helping industrial and utility clients comply with EPA regulations.