EPA and the “National Contingency Plan”

by Steve McIntyre, CA

Did any of you know that the US supposedly has a National Contingency Plan for dealing with very large oil spills? And that EPA has legal responsibility for maintaining readiness for such an eventuality? Who knew? I’ve watched hours of coverage and this hasn’t been mentioned anywhere.

The National Oil and Hazardous Substances Contingency Plan Act was signed into law in 1994 (superceding previous legislation that went back to the 1969 Torrey Canyon oil spill.) Laws and regulations are collated here. The EPA has an online book describing the National Continency Plan. See for example http://www.epa.gov/oem/docs/oil/edu/oilspill_book/chap7.pdf (change the number to get other chapters.)

The EPA manual says:

WHEN A MAJOR oil spill occurs in the United States, coordinated teams of local, state, and national personnel are called upon to help contain the spill, clean it up, and ensure that damage to human health and the environment is minimized. Without careful planning and clear organization, efforts to deal with large oil spills could be slow, ineffective, and potentially harmful to response personnel and the environment. In the United States, the system for organizing responses to major oil spills is called the National Response System.

One of the principles of the National Contingency Plan is that an effective and prompt response is a national priority. The chair and vice-chair of the National Response Team are to come from EPA and the Coast Guard. The EPA manual says:

AFTER THE PLAN is developed, it is important to test it to see if it works as anticipated. Testing usually takes the form of an exercise or drill to practice responding to a spill.

Also, in a first reading, the presumption of the legislation is that dealing with major problems is a national interest and the government will take charge. The idea behind the plan is that there will be national readiness to deal with oil spills and that EPA will lead the national readiness. Section 3.1.1 (h) states:

Direct planning and preparedness responsibilities of NRT [national Response team] include: (1) Maintaining national preparedness to respond to a major discharge of oil that is beyond regional capabilities.

MMS, who have borne the brunt of criticism of government activities, play little to no role in the National Contingency Plan – based on my initial reading – and definitely a very minor role relative to EPA. MMS does not appear to be a member of the National Response Team (though 300.175 notes that MMS may have useful information and can be called on through the Dept of Interior representative).

I’ve noticed EPA involvement in worrying about dispersant toxicity, but otherwise EPA seems to have been surprisingly invisible given the prominent role assigned to them in the National Contingency Plan.

I’ve only browsed the legislation and manuals and it’s not an area about which I speak authoritatively. I invite readers to look through the Act, regulations and manuals and comment on the degree to which EPA and other agencies have met their statutory obligations. Please do so in relatively technical terms and avoid the temptation to hyperventilate.

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