When are You Required to Report an Oil Spill and Hazardous Substance Release?

Any person or organization responsible for a release or spill is required to notify the federal government when the amount reaches a federally-determined limit. Separate reporting requirements exist for:

States also may have separate reporting requirements. However, anyone who discovers a hazardous substance release or oil spill is encouraged to contact the federal government, regardless of whether they are the responsible party. All it takes is a single telephone call to the National Response Center at (800) 424-8802.

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Oil Spills

EPA has established requirements to report spills to navigable waters or adjoining shorelines. EPA has determined that discharges of oil in quantities that may be harmful to public health or the environment include those that:

  • Violate applicable water quality standards;
  • Cause a film or "sheen" upon, or discoloration of the surface of the water or adjoining shorelines; or
  • Cause a sludge or emulsion to be deposited beneath the surface of the water or upon adjoining shorelines.

Any person in charge of vessels or facilities that discharge oil in such quantities is required to report the spill to the federal government. EPA provides several exemptions from the oil spill reporting requirements.

The requirement for reporting oil spills stems from the Discharge of Oil Regulation, known as the "sheen rule." Under this regulation, oil spill reporting does not depend on the specific amount of oil spilled, but on the presence of a visible sheen created by the spilled oil. Reporting an oil discharges may also be required under the Spill Prevention, Control, and Countermeasure (SPCC) Rule. For more information on reporting oil discharges, please see: Oil Discharge Reporting Requirements: How to Report to the National Response Center and EPA

Hazardous Substances

For releases of hazardous substances, the federal government has established Superfund Reportable Quantities (RQs). If a hazardous substance is released to the environment in an amount that equals or exceeds its RQ, the release must be reported to federal authorities, unless certain reporting exemptions for hazardous substance releases also apply.

Under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) of 1986, the federal government has designated several hundred substances as "extremely hazardous substances" based on their acute lethal toxicity. Under the law, releases of these extremely hazardous substances trigger reporting requirements to state and local authorities, as well as the federal authorities. The owner or operator of a facility that releases an extremely hazardous substance in an amount greater than its established RQ must follow requirements on how to report to the appropriate authorities (in many cases, the State Emergency Response Commission (SERC) and the Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC)) for the location where the incident occurs.

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For more information on reporting hazardous substance releases, please see: Frequent Questions.