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oil and chemical spill


Oil and Chemical Spills

Thousands of oil and chemical spills occur each year in the United States as a result of accidents or natural disasters. Spills into coastal waters can harm people and the environment and cause substantial disruption of marine transportation—with potential widespread economic impacts.

For significant spills, a Federal On-Scene Coordinator (FOSC) is established to oversee the spill response. This role is filled by either the Coast Guard or the Environmental Protection Agency.

Spill response collage: An overturned boat leaks fuel, which appears as a rainbow-colored sheen on the water. A responder assesses the depth of oil penetration on a rocky beach. Responders clean oil off of a rocky beach by spraying hot water.

Spill responders at work

Under the National Contingency Plan and the National Response Plan, NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) is responsible for providing scientific support when the Coast Guard is the FOSC. OR&R is available 24/7 for support, which may include:

  • Assessing the fate of the hazardous material;
  • Estimating where the spill will travel and how quickly that will happen;
  • Analyzing biological and human-use resources that may be impacted;
  • Considering tradeoffs of spill response techniques; and
  • Assisting with the response, cleanup, sampling, and post-spill damage assessment and restoration.

OR&R has responded to thousands of spills, including the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. With nearly 11 million gallons of spilled oil, this is the largest single oil spill in U.S. coastal waters. The Exxon Valdez spill led to a re-examination of the state of oil spill prevention, response, and cleanup—and the passage of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.

Spill Response and Preparedness Tools

OR&R has developed many tools to help provide scientific support, and they share those tools with other emergency responders and emergency response planners—at no cost. Below are two examples:

chemical vialsCAMEO Chemicals: A website where emergency responders and planners can search for hazardous chemicals, get response recommendations, and find out how chemicals would react if they mixed. This tool is part of the CAMEO (Computer-Aided Management of Emergency Operations) software suite.


Tanker spilling oilIncidentNews: A website with news, photos, and other information about oil and chemical spills. Emergency responders, planners, and interested members of the public can search this site to find out about significant current spills, research spills from the last 30 years where OR&R provided support, and get background information about spills.

In addition to developing tools and providing response support, OR&R helps spill responders prepare for spills by:

  • Providing training,
  • Participating in planning and preparedness activities, and
  • Assisting with drills (exercises where responders work through a response to a hypothetical spill in order to test procedures).

Preparing for spills in advance can increase the efficiency and effectiveness of a real spill response, minimize the harm to people, reduce the negative impacts to the economy, and enhance environmental recovery. For instance, planners can use OR&R's Environmental Sensitivity Index maps to identify particularly sensitive areas (such as a nesting area for an endangered bird, a popular tourist beach, or an aquaculture facility) and decide the best way to protect those resources—before a spill occurs.

For More Information: - NOAA Office of Response and Restoration

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