HazMat: Responding to fuel spills

CarolinaFireJournal - Jason Krusen
Jason Krusen
04/23/2012 -

While fuel (petroleum) spills are not the most glamorous of hazmat calls one responds to, they are probably the most frequent. They can range from a two car MVA with a leaking fuel tank, to a MC306 overturned on an off ramp, or possibly a large above ground storage tank depending on your response area. Many departments do not consider them a hazmat call to begin with so if it ends up being larger than anticipated responders are behind the curve.

I would venture to bet many departments only dispatch a single unit to these calls no matter what the quantity reported, again hindering the responder. As responders we must not become complacent with the response to fuel spills, and anticipate them all being large and complex as soon as we are dispatched.


We must first understand the dangers that can be associated with fuel spills. Like any other hazmat incident we must treat it as the worst suspected product until we can prove otherwise. If responding to a report of a fuel leak at a gas station it is likely to suspect the product will be gasoline, diesel, kerosene, or a gasoline/ethanol blend. The first three, while they have different characteristics, can be addressed with Aqueous Film-Forming Foam (AFFF) if there is a threat of fire, most often based on product and amount of spill.

Each situation needs to be addressed individually as there are many aspects that need to be considered. The gasoline/ethanol blend presents a new set of challenges that many departments are most likely not prepared to address. 

Dealing with a spill, and or clean-up of the spill, presents safety concerns, but a majority of the time is handled without any escalation to the incident. Once fire involvement is introduced things change quickly, and the concern of the “haz-mat” incident is quickly overshadowed by the large volume of fire, and the need for not only suppression personnel, but also an effective extinguishing agent. 

Although the use of foam is becoming more prevalent in everyday firefighting with Compressed Air Foam (CAF) systems, many firefighters do not fully understand the differences in foams. Without getting off subject it is important to understand when dealing with a gasoline/ethanol blend that Alcohol Resistant (AR) Foam is needed or an AR-AFFF.

Weather can also play a big part on what is happening with the product. It is important to understand the flash points (fp) of all the fuel products to understand how they are going to react. Typical hot summers in the Carolinas can take diesel from a not so dangerous product to a dangerous product due to the air and surface temperatures with a fp around 125 degrees. On the other hand, gasoline which is far more dangerous because of its lower flash point, starts to act like alcohol in that the increased temperature helps volatilize the product.

Departments should consider tiered responses based on the initial reports and not wait until the first unit arrives on scene — if for nothing else to assist with establishing an initial isolation zone until the product and amount can be determined. It is easy to turn units around or release them from the scene, but time delayed in dispatching the initial units cannot be made up. If the caller provides accurate and well described facts about the call then a single unit response may be warranted. If the caller is unsure, provides vague information, or is relaying information from a third party then additional units may be needed at the initial dispatch.

It is important that everyone receive proper training in the response to fuel spills, not just the hazmat team. Even if the hazmat team is on the initial response to these incidents they are most likely not going to be the first to arrive. Therefore all first responders should be aware of initial actions to take when arriving on scene. This includes scene security, both evacuating the immediate area and denying access to others seeking entry.

Product identification is important as well as the amount. The first arriving unit can easily determine the product and relay information to the responding hazmat team.

As a hazmat officer I was regularly advised while en route to a call by fellow responders that they were on scene of a large fuel spill of approximately 25 gallons. Upon arrival we were lucky if there was more than five gallons on the ground. Sometimes we were advised the opposite, but most often it was the exaggeration of the amount. To correct this issue during recent in-service training I created a one, five, and 25 gallon spill of water in a parking lot to show personnel the differences in the quantities on the ground.

The Ethanol Emergency Response Coalition (EERC) and Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) are great resources for responders. The EERC created a great training program in conjunction with the International Association of Fire Chief’s (IAFC) that can be downloaded from their website. There is a training video as well as a power point presentation. 

It is important as first responders to understand the reportable amounts when it comes to fuel spills. While the responsibility rests on the person that caused the release or is responsible for the product, they may not always be around.  Often times a passer by will make the call to 911, and be of no involvement, in some cases the responsible person may be involved in the event that caused the release; such as a traffic accident and unable to make the notification. 

These regulations vary from state to state, and even county to county, so it is important to understand what is required in your response area. Listed is the North Carolina requirement for reporting a petroleum spill and South Carolina’s is not much different. The local government may have a more stringent reporting quantity based on local codes.

The reporting requirements for petroleum products are in North Carolina’s Oil Pollution and Hazardous Substances Control Act of 1978, §143-215.85(a and b). 

If the petroleum discharged, released or spilled is 25 gallons or more, or causes a sheen on nearby surface water, or is 100 feet or less from surface water body, then the person owning or having control over the oil must immediately take measures to collect and remove the discharge, and report the discharge to N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (NCDENR) within 24 hours of discharge, and begin to restore area affected by discharge.

If the petroleum released or spilled is less than 25 gallons, does not cause sheen on nearby surface water, and is more than 100 feet from surface water bodies, then the person who owns or has control over the oil must immediately take measures to collect and remove the discharge. If it cannot be cleaned up within 24 hours of the discharge or causes sheen on nearby surface water, the person must immediately notify the NCDENR.

Use of absorbent material is commonly used at fuel spills. If the spill occurs at a gas station the business should have a supply of absorbent material for small spills. Again local codes may dictate how much material they are required to have on hand. If they have the product on hand I always suggest using their product first. Many times if the leak occurs on the roadway a little dirt or sand will do the same as an expensive absorbent. If the quantities get to the reportable limits then a clean-up contractor is likely to be called.

The Department of Transportation is a great resource, especially in larger incidents, that are affecting the roadway and creating subsequent traffic hazards. They are also useful in large spills where bulk material is needed for diking and damming purposes. Local municipality crews are another resource. 

As with tow services, or any other compensated service provider we as public employees are not allowed to suggest any one company over another because of ethics violations. What can be done for the responsible party is to have a list of approved clean-up contractors that are capable of responding in a timely fashion. This can usually be acquired from the environmental regulatory agency. Most businesses and commercial carriers will have a company on retainer that is able to respond to local events.

It gets a little tricky when an out of state business has a clean-up company local to their home office. Those are usually subbed out and can deal with the clean-up process. While these actions are not the responsibility of the first responder, we have a vested interest in the speedy transition from response to clean-up to get response units back in service.  

It is also important to know what the recovery process is for materials and services provided by the local responders. Many times larger spills can last several hours and emergency responders are still needed because of an ignition issue. Responders can also expel a large amount of absorbent materials that need to be recuperated. 

Continual training and preplanning is an important part of preparedness in response to fuel spills. This applies to all responders not just hazmat personnel. There are many things that need to be researched ahead of time that will streamline the response process to these everyday calls, such as; reporting requirements, approved clean-up contractors, and the local recovery process. Training on new changes like the increasing likelihood of handling a gasoline/ethanol blend will also help your personnel prepare for the worst.

Jason Krusen is a Special Operation Chief for the Columbia Fire Department in Columbia, SC, with over 16 years of experience. He is on the Board of Directors for Fire Smoke Coalition. He has an Associate’s Degree in Fire Service Administration. Jason is a Planning Manager with State Urban Search and Rescue Team, SC-TF1, the Team Coordinator for the Type II Collapse Search & Rescue Regional Response Team in Columbia, and a Planning Section Chief for the Midlands Region IMT.
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