Special Topics in Environmental Management

When to Report an Oil Spill

  • The amount of oil that violates applicable water quality standards.
  • Any amount of oil that causes discoloration of, or a film or "sheen" on, the surface of the water or adjoining shorelines.
  • Any amount of oil that causes a sludge or emulsion to be deposited beneath the surface of the water or on adjoining shorelines.

It may be difficult to determine if a spill has caused any of the circumstances described above. However, because the spills are often easily traced back to their source, if there are any doubts, you should err on the side of caution and report the spill according to appropriate local, state, and federal procedures.

What You’ve Got to Tell NRC

To report a release or spill, contact NRC immediately at 800-424-8802. The NRC is staffed 24 hours a day and you will be asked to provide as much information about the incident as possible.

You should be ready to report:

  • Your name, location, organization, and telephone number
  • Name and address of the party responsible for the incident
  • Date and time of the incident
  • Location of the incident
  • Source and cause of the release or spill
  • Types of material(s) released or spilled
  • Quantity of materials released or spilled
  • Danger or threat posed by the release or spill
  • Number and types of injuries (if any)
  • Weather conditions at the incident location
  • Any other information that may help emergency personnel respond to the incident

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If reporting directly to the NRC is not possible, reports can also be made to the EPA regional office or the USCG Marine Safety Office in the area where the incident occurred. In general, EPA should be contacted if the incident involves a release to inland areas or inland waters, and the USCG should be contacted for releases to coastal waters, the Great Lakes, ports and harbors, or the Mississippi River. EPA or the USCG will promptly relay release and spill reports to the NRC.

When You Don’t Have to Report an Oil Spill

But there are circumstances when reporting requirements don’t apply. Here are EPA’s exemptions:

  • Discharges from properly functioning vessel engines are exempt from reporting.
  • Spills from research and development activities relating to the prevention, control, or abatement of oil pollution are exempt. This exemption is permitted by the EPA administrator, after EPA review, on a case-by-case basis.
  • Certain discharges are allowed if permitted under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES). Note: Always be certain to check your NPDES permit for specific conditions related to oil discharges. The following discharges subject to NPDES are exempt from oil spill reporting:
    • Discharges in compliance with a permit under Section 402 of the Clean Water Act, when the permit contains either effluent limitations specifically applicable to oil or an effluent limitation applicable to another parameter that has been designated as an indicator of oil
    • Discharges resulting from circumstances identified and reviewed and made part of the public record with respect to a permit issued or modified under Section 402 of the Clean Water Act, and subject to a condition in such permit.
    • Continuous or anticipated intermittent discharges from a point source, identified in a permit or permit application under Section 402 of the Clean Water Act, which are caused by events occurring within the scope of relevant operating or treatment systems.
  • Certain discharges beyond territorial seas are permitted under international law, and therefore are exempt from U.S. oil spill notification requirements. However, the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) prohibits the discharge of oily mixtures, except when all of the following conditions are met:
    • The tanker is proceeding en route.
    • The tanker is more than 50 miles from the nearest land.
    • The instantaneous rate of discharge does not exceed 60 liters per mile.
    • The total quantity of oil discharged in any ballast voyage does not exceed 1/15,000 of the total cargo-carrying capacity.

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MARPOL also allows discharges in quantities verified by a monitoring system to be less than or equal to 15 parts per million regardless of whether the discharge causes a sheen.

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