Responding to an Incident

First Line of Defense

When a release or spill occurs, the first line of defense is provided by:

  • the company responsible for the release,
  • its response contractors,
  • local fire and police departments, and
  • local emergency response personnel.

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 some cases, local governments or Indian tribes conduct temporary emergency measures, but do not have emergency response funds budgeted to cover response costs. The Local Governments Reimbursement Program, operated by EPA, will reimburse local governments up to $25,000 per incident.

Federal Involvement

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 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 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 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.