When it comes to a comprehensive facility response plan, a critical mandatory component — though often overlooked — is the actual plan of how a facility would respond to a potential oil spill. Though a response action plan might seem like a fairly straightforward — and important — task, some facilities remain noncompliant, and the consequences of not having one can be problematic, in more ways than one.

If a facility regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) — such as an aviation fuel farm, power plant or bulk storage terminal — stores more than 1 million gallons of oil and can potentially impact a sensitive environment, a facility response plan (FRP) is required. This document should thoroughly outline response strategies and define roles in the event of an oil spill, including who gets notified, where a release would go and what could be impacted downstream. Though it’s necessary to run through all scenarios, an FRP essentially prepares a facility for a worse-case scenario.

How Can a Facility Determine if an FRP Is Required?

If the answer is “yes” to any of the five checklist items below, an FRP is required by law.

  • Does the facility transfer oil over water to or from vessels AND does that facility have a total oil storage capacity greater than or equal to 42,000 gallons?
  • Does the facility have a total oil storage capacity greater than or equal to 1 million gallons AND within any storage area, does the facility lack secondary containment that is sufficiently large to contain the capacity of the largest aboveground oil storage tank plus sufficient freeboard to allow for precipitation?
  • Does the facility have a total oil storage capacity greater than or equal to 1 million gallons AND is the facility located at a distance such that a discharge from the facility could cause injury to fish and wildlife and sensitive environments?
  • Does the facility have a total oil storage capacity greater than or equal to 1 million gallons AND is the facility located at a distance such that a discharge from the facility would shut down a public drinking water intake?
  • Does the facility have a total oil storage capacity greater than or equal to 1 million gallons AND has the facility experienced a reportable oil spill in an amount greater than or equal to 10,000 gallons within the last five years? 

What Should Be Included in an FRP?

The list is long, as it should be to accurately address all requirements. Some of the topics to be noted within the document’s 10 sections include emergency response information, response equipment, evacuation plans, discharge scenarios, plan implementation, and facility drills and exercises. Additional details are available from the EPA.

Playing out numerous scenarios also helps determine off-site response locations, which can be identified using specific mapping techniques to create a spill planning distance. Regulations give guidance for calculating how far the spill will go once it hits a body of water, allowing facilities and environmental specialists to conduct research along that spill planning distance to pinpoint what could be impacted.

Next is documenting what happens if a release gets off-site. For instance, could the spill flow into a drainage ditch where underflow dams might be constructed? Or, if it’s headed toward a river, where could containment booms be deployed? Facilities required to have FRPs must have access to 1,000 feet of containment boom within an hour. If that’s not possible because of limited storage capacity or budget, a facility can rely on its designated oil spill response organization (OSRO), an independent spill contractor, to provide all necessary equipment. Regardless of where the equipment is housed, it still must be delivered within the one-hour time frame.

To know exactly how facility personnel will respond in a time of crisis, it’s advantageous — also mandatory as part of the FRP requirement — to conduct a series of tabletop exercises and drills, as listed within the National Preparedness for Response Exercise Program (PREP) Guidance Document. Release scenarios are key to being prepared, as such scenarios outline all the requirements for properly executing a response plan.

To meet quarterly and semiannual requirements, a facility’s OSRO verifies the necessary drills and exercises were performed as expected and within the required time frame. The documentation process includes confirmation that the equipment was deployed, or tested, which also is an annual requirement.

What Are the Mandatory Drills and Exercises?

According to the EPA, Department of Transportation, Coast Guard and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, the PREP Guidance Document is viewed as the standard for how to execute required drills and exercises as part of an FRP. While some are conducted quarterly and others are conducted semiannually or annually, all require documentation of completion.

Quarterly QI Notification: This specific drill verifies that the facility’s designated qualified individual (QI) — the one who sets the plan in motion — is able to be notified, either by phone or radio, in the event of a spill response emergency. A designated facility response team member is in charge of contacting the QI. If the designated QI is unavailable, an alternate QI will assume responsibility. After the drill is complete, the QI must confirm that the spill exercise was completed and record specifics/recommendations within the exercise log. Because this is the first step in any emergency response situation, the designated QI is critical to seamless execution of these drills and exercises. At least once a year, however, management will choose a random date and time for this drill, and it must take place outside of regular working hours.

Annual Spill Tabletop Exercise: Typically initiated by management, the tabletop exercise brings the facility response team together to discuss spill scenarios and review response actions: what to do, who to call, what equipment to use, what could be affected. The OSRO is required to either participate in the facility’s annual tabletop exercise or conduct its own. As this is a conversation-based exercise, no equipment is deployed.

Once every three years, however, this tabletop exercise has to focus on the worst-case discharge scenario.

Semiannual Equipment Deployment Exercise: EPA-regulated facilities are required to deploy facility-owned equipment two times a year. If a facility doesn’t own or maintain its own equipment — some only have spill kits — response team members can still practice what to do on-site and run through the step-by-step procedures that have been put in place for such an event. For a facility that relies on its OSRO to supply equipment, there’s a requirement within the prep guide document that the OSRO deploy spill response equipment at the facility or within a similar environment on an annual basis. Because this can be quite an expense, the government will accept correspondence from the OSRO that certifies the facility has deployed equipment as required.

Facilities that have their own boom on-site should deploy it according to the action plan so the response team knows how to respond in that scenario. The team should be familiar with where the equipment is stored, what shape it’s in and where exactly to deploy it.

This practice session provides the chance to walk through prevention methods. If a facility experiences a release from a truck-loading rack, for example, the response plan might call for a nearby shut-off value to be closed, keeping the spill on-site rather than draining into a nearby ditch. If that’s the case, personnel need to check the function of that value during this exercise.

As a reminder, the EPA can show up, unannounced, and ask a specific facility to perform a government-initiated exercise. In this case, a facility would need to be prepared to react immediately.

How to Begin — or Improve Upon — a Spill Plan

Though EPA regulations associated with FRP requirements have been in place for decades, now is a good time for new and existing facilities to check their plans and follow up as necessary. The threshold for a basic spill plan is 1,320 gallons, and two diesel tanks easily can meet that limit. If it’s unclear what’s required for a particular facility, an environmental compliance audit can be conducted to determine if a spill plan is needed, what is missing and what can be revised for better results.

An FRP training program covers program requirements and the specifics behind the mandatory drills and exercises. By performing drills and exercises as expected, facilities can better prepare for and respond to a potential spill — as well as an unannounced visit by the EPA. While EPA violations for noncompliance can be costly, the impacts from a facility being unprepared during a spill could be much worse. 


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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.