Environmental Spill Containment Guidelines: A Deep Dive

pollution caused by oil spill from ship


Oceans, seas, and coastlines are home to some of the most amazing ecosystems and wildlife on the planet. They also provide shipping routes for transporting goods across the globe. These waterways can facilitate both functions; however, there are occasions when shipping can be detrimental to the environment. One such instance is in the event of an oil or chemical spill.

One of history’s worst environmental disasters was the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince Edward Sound, Alaska, in 1989. Ten million gallons of crude oil were spilled, irreparably damaging the marine life in the area, including orcas and bald eagles. One of the contributing factors to the extensive damage was the poorly executed clean-up effort.

Spills can have lasting effects on the environment, not only for marine life but human populations as well. Thousands of chemical spills still happen in the waters around the country every year, from minor fuel transfer leaks to larger ship collisions. To help reduce the damage from these oil and chemical spills, here are some guidelines for environmental spill containment.

How to Prevent Spills

The first step to preventing oil and chemical spills during shipping is proper handling and storage. Shifting containers can cause ruptures to improperly packaged materials, leading to leaks. It is critical hazardous materials be appropriately packaged, and that those packages are secured.

One effective way to prevent spills is to store packaged chemicals on a spill containment pallet. Spill pallets are constructed from a material that resists chemical damage and is sealed to prevent leaks. These packets allow for a quick and easy cleanup and stop chemicals from finding their way into the waterways.

Another preventative measure is to ensure all personnel on board are trained to handle hazardous materials and abide by the standards of compliance and training enacted by OSHA and other regulatory agencies, such as the EPA.

What to Do in the Event of a Spill

In the event of a spill, safety is paramount. Activate the alarm to alert personnel to the spill, and stop all operations. Clear non-essential personnel from the area, and limit access. Alert the port authorities, and organize for the main engine to be put on standby.

There are essentially four different methods for containing and cleaning an oil or chemical spill. The method used will depend on the environment, the composition of the spill, as well as weather conditions and other variables.

  1. Use a physical barrier to contain the spill: Depending on the location and the type of chemical, there are two kinds of physical barriers that can be used. A boom, which floats above the spills and uses skimmers to collect the spill into containers. Or, a berm, which is used for land vehicles and is assembled underneath the spill to catch the oil or chemicals like a swimming pool.
  2. Use chemical dispersants: This depends on the type of chemical, as some dispersants can have volatile reactions when mixed with certain chemicals and cause more harm. Dispersants break down the spill into small droplets which are more readily absorbed into the environment.
  3. Biodegradation: This occurs when biological agents, such as bacteria and other microorganisms, are added to the spill to break it down into harmless compounds.
  4. Natural Dispersal: Sometimes the only option is to let the sun, currents, and waves naturally disperse the spill if there is no danger to surrounding marine life.

bright orange oil boom

Disposing of Hazardous Materials

Once the spill has been contained, it is important to dispose of the waste correctly to avoid any damage to the environment. The EPA is responsible for regulating the disposal of hazardous waste, which is performed at Treatment Storage and Disposal Facilities. The type of disposal system will depend on the size and type of the spill.

When handling hazardous waste, personnel should always take safety precautions by wearing appropriate attire and storing waste in proper containers.

What Are the Requirements for Chemical Transport?

Aside from proper storage and handling requirement, all hazardous materials must be labeled and identified with a placard.

Placarding is a way for transport authorities to know what class of hazardous material is being transported aboard. It also allows personnel to prepare the necessary safety measures for every chemical and helps to prevent cross contamination.

blue storage barrels on wooden pallets

Storing Hazardous Materials

Proper storage is essential for preventing spills during transport. Improperly stored oil and chemicals are more likely to cause leaks and spills, so it is important to select the right container for each chemical, as some chemicals can react with the material of the container. Incompatible chemicals should also be segregated according to type to avoid volatile reactions, and some chemicals may need to be further separated with a non-combustible partition. It may also be necessary for some chemicals to be stored in a secondary container if they pose a high health risk.

Finally, all hazardous materials need to be secured for safe and spill-free shipping.


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