Recently, due to a collision between a tug boat and an oil-carrying barge, 31,500 gallons of crude oil were released into the Mississippi River. As a result of the spill, the Mississippi was closed for two days. Unfortunately, the potential for a spill like this is always present when operating vessels. Similar spills occurred on the Mississippi in 2013 when 80,000 gallons were released when a barge hit a train bridge, and in 2012 when 10,000 gallons were released when a barge hit a bridge. Similarly, in 2008 a major spill occurred on the Mississippi when a barge broke in half after a collision and spilled 283,000 gallons of oil into the river, closing it for six days.

Oil spills are a risk regardless of how safe and well trained your crew is. In the marine environment there are too many variables at work and, if they all line up against you at the same time, this type of disaster could happen to you. As the potential is always there, it is important to have a plan and know how to respond as soon as you are notified that a spill has occurred.

The federal government has developed a plan for responding to spill incidents and it is important to know how to notify the government and how they will respond to the incident. It is also important to have a company plan that provides a response procedure that allows the government to be notified, manages the company's response to the incident and allows the government and the company to work together to minimise the effect of the spill on the environment, the public and the company.

Government response plan

The federal government's response is governed by the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan, more commonly called the National Contingency Plan (NCP). The NCP is the federal government's blueprint for responding to both oil spills and hazardous substance releases. The NCP has led to the development of a national response capability and has promoted coordination among the hierarchy of responders. The NCP was implemented in 1968 in response to a massive spill from the oil tanker Torrey Canyon. It has been modified several times over the years, with the last major revision occurring after the implementation of the Oil Pollution Act 1990. The NCP establishes regional response teams and their roles and responsibilities in the national response system, including coordinating preparedness, planning and responses at the regional level. The regional response team consists of a standing team comprising representatives from each federal agency that is included in planning a spill response, as well as state and local government representatives.

The NCP requires notification of any discharge or release to the National Response Centre through a toll-free telephone number. The National Response Centre acts as the central clearinghouse for all pollution incident reporting. The NCP provides for a pre-designated on-scene coordinator to direct all federal, state and private response activities at the site of a discharge. The process establishes a unified command structure for managing the response through coordinating personnel and the resources of the federal and state governments and the responsible party. Essentially, once you place the call to the National Response Centre, the regional response team will take over and manage the response.

Marine operator response plan

Although the regional response team will manage the spill response, each marine operator should have in place a detailed environmental emergency response plan. The purpose of the plan is to provide guidance to the vessel's captain and officers with respect to the steps to be taken when a pollution incident has occurred. The primary purpose of the plan is to set in motion the necessary actions to minimise the discharge and mitigate its effects. Effective planning will ensure that necessary actions are taken in a structured, logical and timely manner, by guiding the vessel's captain through the various actions and decisions that will be required during an incident response.

Response plans must contain several elements, including:

  • vessel particulars;
  • reporting requirements;
  • what to do in the event of a discharge;
  • how to report a discharge; and
  • how the response will be coordinated with national and/or local authorities.

In addition to these topics, a plan may also contain additional information, such as:

  • a description of the equipment to be utilised in the event of a release;
  • information on how to handle public relations;
  • checklists to be used in case of emergency;
  • procedures for critical tasks that could cause a pollution incident; and
  • requirements for conducting ongoing drills.

Vessel particulars

Each vessel's plan should provide the particulars for the vessel. Although this information can easily be provided by the vessel's captain, in an emergency this information may need to be provided quickly at a time when the captain is unavailable. The plan should identify such information as the vessel's:

  • name;
  • owner and operator;
  • official number;
  • flag;
  • port of registry;
  • builder;
  • gross tonnage;
  • length; and
  • draft.

If this information is included in the emergency response document, any crew member will be able to provide it to the authorities.

Reporting requirements

The next section of the plan should assist the crew in determining whether a discharge of oil should be reported and to whom. As such, the first element of the vessel's response should be to assess the nature of the incident. The crew member who becomes aware of the discharge should immediately alert the other crew members and identify the spill source so that a spill assessment can be conducted. Once the spill has been assessed, the vessel's captain can determine whether the discharge should be reported.

It is important that the crew knows that reporting a spill is required whenever there is a discharge of oil resulting from damage to the vessel or its equipment, an intentional discharge for the purpose of securing the safety of the vessel or saving a life at sea, or a discharge during the operation of the vessel. In addition to these actual discharges, a probable discharge should be reported when a discharge is noticed on the surface of the water and the crew cannot determine where it is coming from. As with the vessel particulars, it is pertinent to have a checklist included in the plan that provides the crew with a brief description of how they should proceed.

Reporting a spill

The captain should report the spill by the quickest means possible, whether via radio or telephone. The plan should include a contact list that the captain can use to report the incident. Under most circumstances, the contact list should include the company's operation centre, the dock or terminal operator where the vessel is working and the state and federal authorities. The captain should provide an initial report that includes the location of the spill, the characteristics of the oil spilled, the disposition of the vessel and its cargo, the movement of the slick and the type of assistance that is required.

Coordination of response

This section of the plan should include a list of the reporting telephone numbers for the National Response Centre and all government agencies and designated response companies that should be contacted in case of emergency. These agencies could include entities such as the US Coast Guard, the adjacent state's Oil Spill Response Office, the adjacent state's Department of Environmental Quality, the State Police Hazardous Material Unit and the State Police Emergency Response Unit. Specific telephone numbers for each state in which your vessel operates should be included in the plan.

Procedures for events that could cause a spill

The plan should also provide the procedures for dealing with specific events that may cause a spill. Such events can include:

  • the transfer of fuel while fuelling the vessel;
  • the transfer of material from the vessel to another vessel or platform;
  • leakage from equipment on deck, such as winches or pumps; and
  • the leakage of material caused by a vessel casualty.

The crew's response to each of these particular events will be different; a response to a vessel grounding causing fuel to leak from a tank will be different from a response to the leaking of fluid from a winch located on deck. Providing a simple checklist gives the crew a list of the tasks that need to be completed to minimise the chance of a spill.

Documenting the spill

Furthermore, the plan should designate which crew member is responsible for documenting the incident by maintaining records such as logs or diaries detailing the incident, the reporting of the incident, the response to the incident and the clean-up of the incident. As the captain is usually busy during an emergency, it may be wise to designate a mate or other similar officer for this task.

Public relations

Additional sections of the plan could include details of how to deal with the public relations aspect of the spill, including which company representatives are authorised to issue statements or give information to any of the entities that may request information, but are not included in the plan. For example, ship personnel need to be authorised to provide information to the coast guard or state police. However, these employees should not be authorised to provide information to entities such as the local media or environmental groups. The plan should designate which company representative is responsible for providing information to these other entities.


Although none of us wants to have a spill, it is important to develop a response plan prior to receiving the call from a vessel notifying you that a spill has occurred. An effective plan will allow your company to coordinate the activities of its personnel, assist the federal government in responding to the spill and attempt to minimise the effect that the spill will have on both your company's reputation and its bottom line. Pre-spill planning may seem like carrying an umbrella with you on a sunny day. However, you will be glad that you spent the time planning for an oil spill if you ever do receive a call notifying you that one of your vessels has been involved in one.

For further information please contact Michael Harowski at Fowler Rodriguez by telephone (+1 504 523 2600) or email ( The Fowler Rodriguez website can be accessed at

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