Preparing Before Accidents Happen: Best Practices for Keeping Your Company Out of the Headlines

No industrial company wants to find itself on the morning news tied to a chemical spill or train derailment. Events like those can transform even the most highly regarded company into a movie villain and give rise to substantial liability. Preparation is essential to mitigate against that possibility.

Who Needs to Prepare for Industrial Accidents?

Any facility that uses or stores chemicals with the potential to pose a threat to the environment and human health if spilled should develop and implement a Spill Response and Prevention Plan. While similar plans are compelled at certain facilities by regulatory requirements, including Section 112(r) of the Clean Air Act, proactively developing a Spill Response and Prevention Plan, even in the absence of a regulatory requirement, can best position companies to avoid or mitigate potential liability.

What Should Spill Response and Prevention Plans Contain?

Spill Response and Prevention Plans should clearly state how to prevent spills, stop the source of a spill, contain and clean up a spill, and dispose of contaminated materials. Plans should contain information related to (a) what chemicals are used or stored at a facility; (b) how the facility intends to prevent spills; and (c) a response plan to deploy if a spill occurs. We break down these Plan sections further below.

General information. Spill plans detail how facilities should handle the chemicals being used and stored at their plants from soup to nuts — from preventing a spill with proper handling procedures and practices all the way through cleaning up and disposing of the spilled material.

Prevention. Preventing a spill will obviously always be better for a facility, the environment, and public health. Prevention plans should define material handling procedures and storage requirements clearly and posit continual employee training (and refreshing) on plan implementation. Other important prevention procedures include the following, as delineated by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA):

  • Recycling, reclaiming, or reusing process materials to reduce the amount of process materials brought into the facility;
  • Installing leak detection devices, overflow controls, and diversion berms;
  • Disconnecting drains from processing areas that lead to the storm sewer;
  • Performing preventative and routine maintenance on equipment;
  • Using material transfer or filling procedures that minimize spills from tanks and other equipment; and
  • Replacing toxic materials with less or non-toxic products where possible.

Response. When first line prevention procedures fail, an immediate spill response is necessary to minimize or eliminate harm to public health or the environment. Having a detailed plan in place before a spill happens is critical to ensuring that the response taken is prompt and appropriate to the spill at hand.

There is not a one-size-fits-all response plan. Because different materials require different responses, any materials stored at the facility that present a spill risk should be addressed in the plan. A response plan should include all of the following:

  • Identification of potential spill or source areas;
  • Identification of individuals responsible for implementing the plan;
  • Description of safety measures to take with each kind of waste stored or used at the facility;
  • Procedures for notifying appropriate authorities, such as police and fire departments, hospitals, or publicly owned treatment works, as necessary;
  • Procedures for containing, diverting, isolating, and cleaning up the spill;
  • Description of safety and cleanup equipment that should be used;
  • Where spill response supplies are located, preferably in a easily accessible locations and/or in staff vehicles, if necessary;
  • Identification of a contractor for larger spill response; and
  • Procedures to document spills and spill response.

Frequent training of employees regarding the procedures is critical, as is a proactive community outreach program in which companies assure that the public is getting accurate and critical information.

Are Spill Plans Impacted by a Facility Being Located in an EJ Community?

State and federal regulators have had an intense focus on environmental justice (EJ) communities in recent years, and we’ve chronicled this focus in some detail. (See generally here and here.) EJ communities contain demographics perceived of as being more vulnerable to chemical exposures and also are a focus for governmental enforcement.

Accordingly, EPA approved a policy that formally incorporates an EJ function into federal Emergency Response Preparedness and Management, requiring industries operating in EJ communities to double-down on spill preparation and planning through following requirements announced by the Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights and the Office of Land and Emergency Management’s Office of Emergency Management in Integrating Environmental Justice into Emergency Response Preparedness and Management.

This document provides five recommendations:

  • Integrate EJ priorities into EPA’s National Approach to Responses structure and developing Management/Incident Objectives, as needed;
  • Engage EJ expertise in early response assessments, such as household hazardous waste, regulated facility, or staging areas, as needed;
  • Incorporate EJ function and staffing support with regional Incident Management Team and Emergency Operations Center structures, where appropriate;
  • Implement training and other related requirements for the EJ Response Facilitator group; and
  • Develop and promote the adoption and use of participation guidelines for disaster response situations by relevant emergency response organizations in both the public and private sectors.

Members of the firm’s Environmental Group stand ready to help you evaluate emergency response plans at your facility or provide advice on federal or state regulations in this area. Contact us with questions about how these efforts or programs affect you.


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